The fate of the Western Athletic Conference championship rested in the hands of New Mexico State University’s Lindsay Harlas.
She wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The second-seeded Aggies edged top seed Grand Canyon University 4-3 when the senior edged GCU junior Celia Morel 7-5 in the third set. Harlas split the first two sets with Morel 6-3.
Later, Grand Canyon University beat NMSU for the WAC men’s crown.
Harlas and the rest of the NMSU women earned their first trip to the NCAA Tournament from May 16-25 at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla.
“I’m just really proud of Lindsay,” NMSU coach Emily Wang said. “Because it’s really easy even throughout a game or throughout a set to get tight, especially when it comes down a particular match. I’m just really proud of her as a senior, she’s worked super hard and been a great leader for us.”
Trailing 5-3 in the second set, Harlas saw her teammates begin to clear the neighboring courts, and the crowd focused its attention on the last two women standing.
“It kind of made me actually relax a little bit,” Harlas said. “I noticed it, and I kind of laughed about it, like, ‘Oh, perfect.’ I love the pressure. I’m kind of happy it came down to me. Four years down, and senior year it was all up to me.”
Tied at five games during the third set and looking to get out of the funk she had found herself in as Morel was gaining, Harlas punctuated a rally with Morel with a point on a pivotal drop shot that put her in control. She went on to lead 6-5 and emerge victorious in the decisive set.
“There was kind of a lull in the third set when I got very nervous,” Harlas said. “I kind of had to wake myself up, and I woke myself up and realized I didn’t want to play my last match ever, thinking that it was stupid that I played like that.”
NMSU’s Neus Torregrosa topped GCU’s Martina Lo Pumo 6-3, 6-3, and Chloe Gavino won 6-2, 6-3 over GCU’s Autum Prudhomme.
GCU’s Emilia Occhipinti defeated NMSU’s Rebecca Keijzerwaard 6-1, 6-3, and Celina Buhr beat NMSU’s Harsha Challa 6-4, 6-2. Ludovica Infantino prevailed over Yadira Rubio of NMSU 6-2, 6-4.
Harlas and Rubio (who transferred to NMSU after two seasons at Texas State) helped the Aggies gain the doubles point by winning 6-4 against GCU’s pairing of Lo Pumo and Infantino. Challa and Gavi Kalaga topped the GCU duo of Buhr and Occhipinti 6-3. Gavino and Keijzerwaard dropped their doubles match with Morel and Prudhomme, losing 6-1.
Having witnessed the drama unfold in the women’s final earlier, Grand Canyon University’s Mathieu Rajaonah prepared himself to be ready for anything – including a 3-hour, 15-minute marathon in which the senior from Marseille, France, played the role of closer.
NMSU’s Louis Menard hit a line-drive return that caught the netting late in the third set to clinch the match 5-7, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 for Rajaonah and the tournament 4-3 for GCU. After Rajaonah emerged from the bottom of a dogpile with his joyous teammates, he sprinted to the other side of the court to console Menard, his fellow Frenchman, before both sides shook hands.
The match pushed Rajaonah’s fitness to the limit, and also was a battle of wills to overcome his doubles loss with Lorenzo Fucile to Menard and Enrique Asmar 6-2 earlier in the afternoon.
“We all were prepared that it could come down to a seventh match,” Rajaonah said. “Of course I was tired, but I think (Menard) was more tired than me. We were prepared, we are used to this weather.”
GCU coach Greg Prudhomme said Rajaonah’s fatigue contributed to his improved accuracy as the match went on, citing his ability to rally back after facing a match point during the second set.
“The less I was thinking, the better I was playing,” Rajaonah said. “I was so tired that I was loose, I didn’t realize what I was doing.”
Having to go through the defending WAC champion Aggies to win the title made it that much sweeter for Prudhomme and the Antelopes.
“New Mexico State, they’re kind of legends in the WAC,” Prudhomme said. “They’ve won this thing before. You have to be better than good to unseat the heavyweight champions, because in a draw the champion retains the belt.”
In men’s singles, Fucile topped Stijn de Haan 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. GCU’s Valentin Lang won 7-6 (7-5), 6-1 against Martin Simecek, and Jakub Novak beat Nicolas Buitrago 7-6 (7-3), 6-4.
New Mexico State’s Asmar defeated Freddie Grant 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, and Mauri Benitez came back after dropping the first set 6-2 to Lucas Grego, winning 6-4, 6-2.
In men’s doubles, Buitrago and Luis Flores picked up a point for NMSU with a 6-3 victory over Grego and Grant.