By Cody Soto
Play every point. That is what junior Rachael James-Baker had to do in order to dig herself out of a second set deficit Friday night.
“For me, as long as you’re in the match and there’s one more point you can always come back,” James-Baker said. “That’s the mentality I had throughout the entire match. We’re in the Sweet 16, and my team needed me.”
James-Baker forced a third and final set with the match on the line, and a resilient effort pushed nine-seed Baylor women’s tennis past eight-seed Virginia for the 4-3 win in the NCAA Round of 16 at the Hurd Tennis Center.
James-Baker’s 6-7 (3), 7-5, 6-1 win over Skylar Morton helped Baylor advance to its first Elite Eight appearance since 2011 and avenged a 4-1 loss to Virginia last year in the Sweet 16.
“I’ve seen a few of these matches over the years and I predicted that this was going to be a tight match,” head coach Joey Scrivano said. “The margin between winning and losing was very small. I think in the end, it was probably a five or ten point difference. For our girls to stick with it and find a way to win is amazing and impressive.”
Baylor showed grit in doubles to start out the night. Freshmen Kelley Anderson and Theresa Van Zyl banded together on court two and carded an 8-3 win over Virginia’s Stephanie Nauta and Cassie Mercer for the early advantage.
Senior Ema Burgic and James-Baker did not find a rhythm at the top of the lineup, and just as they were starting to pull themselves back into the match, No. 28 Julia Elbaba and Skylar Morton won 8-3 to even up the match.
Junior Kiah Generette and sophomore Blair Shankle grinded out a tough 8-7 (4) tiebreaker win on court three to give Baylor the early 1-0 lead. That point would prove to be crucial at the conclusion of the match.
“Tonight we had to throw everything at Virginia,” Scrivano said. “We had to make adjustments and the girls did a great job with it. Every point is big at this stage, and the doubles point showed that.”
Anderson continued her dominance over Virginia as she rolled past Mercer 7-5, 6-2 at the No. 6 spot for the first singles point of the night. Just as Baylor savored its 2-0 lead, Virginia took wins at the top two spots to draw even once again.
Burgic fell 6-1, 6-2 to No. 6 Elbaba while Generette dropped a 6-2, 6-1 decision to No. 15 Danielle Collins. Baylor took a 3-2 lead after Shankle shook off a rough second set to win in three frames on court three. Shankle dominated in the third set, winning 6-1 over No. 40 Nauta.
“Stephanie played really well in the second set,” Shankle said. “She came out and hit some passes, and I didn’t execute as well as I wanted to at the net. In the third set, I had the mindset of being aggressive. If I was going to lose, she was going to have to beat me to the punch.”
Maci Epstein’s 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 win over Van Zyl tied up the match at 3-3, leaving the final point to be decided on court four between James-Baker and Morton. After trailing 5-4, James-Baker fired back and took an exhilarating to force a final set. Besides a few missed shots, the Detroit native did not stutter for the win.
“Rachael plays with great enthusiasm and she plays well on the big stage,” Scrivano said. “She does not shy away from these situations. She embraces it, and you need players like that. So she’s setting the tone for the team right now with her effort and her attitude and her enthusiasm. I’m proud of her.”
Baylor now faces top-seed USC in the NCAA quarterfinals for a chance to play in the Final Four on Monday. The match between the two top 10 teams starts at 4 p.m. on Sunday at the Hurd Tennis Center.