PRINCETON: Shoemaker helps Ephs to national title

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   When Kara Shoemaker joined the three-time defending national champion Williams College women’s tennis team, she was not new to the pressures of trying to continue a program’s success.
   The Princeton resident had done the same when she moved up from the Hun Middle School to the Raiders high school team that was in the midst of seven straight Mercer County Tournament titles.
   ”When I decided to go to Williams, I picked it for a great academic and a great tennis program,” Shoemaker said. “I didn’t think, ‘I have to go there to continue this streak.’”
   The Hun graduate has helped the Ephs keep their NCAA streak going. Shoemaker was just outside the starting lineup as a freshman, but in the past two years, she jumped to the top of the Williams lineup for national titles No. 5 and 6 in a row.
   ”This one was really exciting,” said Shoemaker of Williams’ 5-2 Division III national championship win over Emory College last month. “We had lost a couple matches over spring break. We really had to turn things around and work on improving throughout the season. So this one was extra exciting.”
   There were whispers outside the program that the Ephs were vulnerable this year. They actually lost four matches this year, including two in a five-day stretch over their spring break.
   ”We knew we needed to work on things and improve,” said Shoemaker, a junior. “That’s what we tried to focus on rather than worrying about if we would win nationals or not at the end.”
   Williams won the NESCAC Championship for the first time since 2011, and that got the ball rolling for the Ephs in the postseason.
   Shoemaker’s season was something of a microcosm of the Ephs’ year. She was adjusting from moving up from second singles as a sophomore to first singles throughout the regular season.
   ”The year at 1 she definitely demonstrated a lot of improvement,” said Williams head coach Alison Swain. “She had moments when she wasn’t competing her best or her game wasn’t coming together the way she wanted to. But the moment we hit the postseason, it came on.
   ”Where she improved the most was her mental toughness and her mental game. It’s a big adjustment to play the best player on every team. We play a lot of good teams with really good players at 1. By the end of the season, she had taken a big leap forward in believing she can play with the best girls.”
   Shoemaker finished her first year at the top spot 20-9 overall to earn first-team All-NESCAC in singles. She went 22-8 at second singles as a sophomore.
   ”I don’t focus on my individual record,” Shoemaker said. “I don’t even know it off the top of my head. I helped contribute to the team which is the most important thing throughout the year.”
   She was also 27-8 at first doubles with Rebecca Currin. In the fall, she and Curran won the ITA Regional Doubles Tournament and were third in the ITA National Small College Championships, and they reached the quarterfinals of the national doubles tournament this spring. They were also first-team All-NESCAC.
   ”We started playing together in the fall,” said Shoemaker, who was also an Academic All-NESCAC selection. “Things just really clicked between us and we turned out to be great team.”
   She had some opportunity to play doubles in Mid-Atlantic Prep League matches for Hun before coming to Williams, and her doubles experience has grown from there.
   ”I think just learning more about doubles as a whole has helped me,” Shoemaker said. “I played some doubles in high school, but I didn’t really know what was effective to do in doubles. Working on volleys and returns a lot helped a lot too.”
   Both Shoemaker and Curran will be back next year for the Ephs, who finished 23-4 overall.
   Said Swain: “They’re All-American in doubles. They got third in the Small College Tournament this past fall. They have a lot to be proud of. A 27-8 record, it’s an awesome doubles record. They were ranked 1-2 in our region all year long. They had a win over the doubles team from Amherst that won the individual NCAA doubles tournament. We’re excited to have them back playing together next year.”
   Swain is excited to see what Shoemaker can do in her final season with the team. Shoemaker, a psychology and economics major, will be spending significantly less time on the court this summer due to working as an intern in New York, but each year she has come back improved to Williams after working out at Hopewell Tennis Club over the summers.
   ”I’ve just developed a more concrete game plan as opposed to how I used to play,” Shoemaker said. “I have a better sense of what I’m going to do to win points. Coming in freshman year, I had all the shots, but I didn’t really know how to put things together.
   ”I think it came from playing with people at such a high level of tennis on a daily basis. You start to figure out what you need to do and what you need to improve on.”
   The Ephs have appreciated it. After she just missed a spot in the regular lineup her freshman year, she vaulted to second singles as a sophomore.
   ”She won our most Improved Player as a sophomore,” Swain said. “She’s grown, and athletically she’s improved a lot. She’s a tall girl with long limbs. She’s grown into her own body and gotten stronger and able to generate more power. She has a better idea of her weapons and how to use them. In terms of moving up the ladder, I’ve never had anyone do that. To make that kind of a jump, you have to make improvements in every aspect of the game.”
   Explained Shoemaker: “I guess after freshman year I played a couple matches at 6 when people were injured, and it was so fun I wanted to be able to contribute on and off the court more. That summer, I played a lot of tennis and worked on my game. I came back and played second singles, which was exciting.
   ”It was surprising in the sense that I played 7 the year before. Once I started playing matches, it seemed to all work out.”
   This year brought a new challenge of playing first singles. She went 6-3 in the fall.
   ”It was definitely challenging to play at 1,” she said. “You are playing everyone’s top player. I tried to look at it at as an opportunity to get a great match every time and work on improving through each match.”
   Shoemaker saw her dedication pay off with her top game when Williams needed it most — at the end of the year. Williams’ run included a semifinal win over previously unbeaten Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, which had defeated them earlier in the regular season.
   ”I think I was just so excited being in the postseason,” Shoemaker said. “I felt like there was so much energy from the team. I guess everything clicked at that point. I definitely felt I played my best tennis in the postseason.”
   Even as she was adjusting to her spot, she impressed Swain with her determination and consistency.
   ”She did not have a bad loss,” Swain said. “She beat everyone she was ranked ahead of all year long. In the NESCAC final, she beat Jordan Brewer of Amherst. That was probably Kara’s biggest win.
   ”The other accomplishment was in the finals in nationals, the No. 1 player from Emory who won the individual title last year, Kara split sets with her. It was a big accomplishment for Kara and it shows how much she competes for her team. She was not going to lose for the team.”
   After three years of steady progress, Shoemaker has the tools to help lead Williams into new territory. Currently, only Williams and Stanford have ever won six national women’s tennis team titles in a row.
   ”I really don’t think this team feels pressure to continue it because every year is a different season,” Shoemaker said. “And it’s such a long year. It’s not something we focus on from the beginning of the year. We’re just focused on improving and getting to be the best possible team by the end of next spring.
   ”I haven’t thought that much about next year. I’m trying to enjoy this one before I worry about next year.”