Pam Diamond ’99 was trailing 4-1. She was in a giant leg brace. And she didn’t know the entire season hung on her performance.
It was 1999, and Diamond was also cramping badly in the third set of her NCAA women’s tennis semifinal match. That’s when Head Coach Jackie Bagwell made an important—and ultimately historic—decision: She told Diamond, her #4 singles player, that the fate of the match, and thereby the season, was in her hands.
“I told her, ‘You’re never as tired or injured as you think you are,’” Bagwell recalls. “Once she found out she was the deciding factor, she raised the level of her game and became the player she was before she hurt herself. She seemed to thrive on the responsibility of closing out the match.”
Diamond’s win became the defining moment in the journey to Amherst’s first national team championship in any sport. While basketball, football and soccer were in the public eye, the College’s tennis teams had quietly built into a powerhouse. “I don’t know if anyone realized the passion we all had,” says Bagwell. “There were so many legendary coaches here in so many other sports—Bill Thurston, Dave Hixon, Michelle Morgan, Peter Gooding and Jack Siedlecki. They had all been here for a long time, and I really admired them.”
The 1997–98 season had ended in disappointment when Diamond injured her ACL—the reason for her leg brace a year later. Nevertheless, by the following fall, the women were laser-focused on the championship, spurred on by Diamond and co-captain Neely Steinberg ’99. “We went around all season, even at parties, going into a corner and screaming, ‘Number one!,’” recalls Jamie Cohen ’01. “We believed we could do it, and everyone was committed to that goal.”
The women went undefeated in the regular season as Bagwell drove them around New England in a van stuffed with players, tennis bags and, with each successive win, more confidence and swagger. There was no question they’d go to the 12-team championship round in New Jersey, though the players grumbled when the national committee failed to reward them with one of the top two seeds and a first-round bye.
The “Steamrollers,” as they came to be known at the tournament operations desk, topped Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 8–1 in the opening round, setting up Diamond’s semifinals victory. In the title match, Amherst collected its third win of the year over Williams, 5–2, with Diamond earning the championship-clinching point.