When the Amherst College women’s tennis team stepped onto the courts in Kalamazoo, Mich., this spring, it was Head Coach Jackie Bagwell’s 23rd appearance at the NCAA championships. Though the faces on either side of the net continue to change, one thing never falters: Bagwell’s belief that, no matter the opponent, her team will win.
Bagwell relied on this belief 20 years ago, when she faced an important—and ultimately historic—decision.
The coach was torn over whether to tell #4 singles Pam Diamond ’99 that the fate of the team’s NCAA semifinal match, and thereby its season, was in her hands. Diamond, sporting a giant leg brace, was trailing 4–1 in the third set against Trinity University, and cramping badly.
Bagwell delivered the news: “I told her, ‘You’re never as tired or injured as you think you are. You are better than this kid. You need to play to win, not just play not to lose.’ 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 team’s journey to take home Amherst’s first national team championship in any sport. To many, women’s tennis seemed an unlikely sport to earn that distinction. But while basketball, football and soccer were in the public eye, the College’s tennis teams were quietly building into a powerhouse.
“I don’t know if anyone realized the passion we all had,” recalls 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.”
Bagwell took over the women’s tennis team in 1991. Recruiting was difficult at first, because in those days NESCAC programs were barred from competing for NCAA championships. Once this policy changed, in the mid-1990s, Bagwell used the dream of a national championship as a talking point, and she spoke of winning the title with members of the 1998–99 team even before they committed to Amherst. This was a team of destiny.
The 1997–98 season had ended in disappointment when Diamond injured her ACL in the national semifinals—the reason for her leg brace a year later. Nevertheless, when the team returned to campus in the fall, they began talking seriously about the championship, spurred on by Diamond and her senior co-captain Neely Steinberg ’99.
“All season we said, ‘We’re going to win the championship—no ifs, ands or buts about it,’” says Diamond (whose name is now Pam Rock, her married name). “I would be so intense that we were going to win. And my parents were concerned, if we didn’t win, how upset we would be. But we were all so bonded, and so not only did we have a strong team physically, but it was definitely a strong mental connection.”
Steinberg and Jamie Cohen ’01 took over as the #2 and #1 players in the lineup, respectively, easing the pressure on a still-recovering Diamond. “We basically went around all season, even at parties, going into a corner and screaming, ‘Number one!,’” recalls Cohen. “We really believed that we could do it, and everyone was committed to that goal.”
That commitment showed on the courts. The women went undefeated in the regular season as Bagwell drove them around New England in a van stuffed to the brim with players, tennis bags and, with each successive win, more confidence and swagger. There was no question they’d be making a trip to the 12-team championship round in New Jersey, though the players grumbled when the national committee did not 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 UC San Diego 6–3 in the second round. Next came Bagwell’s pep talk to Diamond and the defining 5–4 win over the national powerhouse from Texas. After that was the national championship game, where Amherst collected its third win of the year over archrival Williams, 5–2, with Diamond earning the championship-clinching point.
During their time in New Jersey, the women developed a tradition: the victory in each round was followed by a meal at the Olive Garden in Trenton. The staff at the eatery became fans, comping the team’s victory dinner on the night of the title win.
Since that momentous tennis win, Amherst has won 12 additional national team championships: women’s lacrosse in 2003; men’s basketball in 2007 and 2013; women’s cross-country in 2007; women’s ice hockey in 2009 and 2010; women’s basketball in 2011, 2017 and 2018; men’s tennis in 2011 and 2014; and men’s soccer in 2015. Today’s fans are used to seeing the Mammoths travel around the country for NCAA tournaments and return to College banquets with rings and trophies.
In 1999, though, nobody really knew what to do. Players crammed into Kristin Ogdon ’00’s tiny red Volkswagen Cabrio and drove around with the trophy, blasting “We Are the Champions” and screaming “Number one!” over and over. Some of them ran to the nearest piercing parlor and got belly button rings.
“I think we were so caught up in the joy of realizing our dream, our goal, that I don’t think we thought bigger-picture, like ‘What does this mean for the College?’” says Steinberg, who also won the NCAA individual singles title in 1999. “I do think it put us on the map, and it probably opened up doors to other tennis athletes taking a serious look at coming to Amherst.”
Cohen took the singles crown the following year, and for two decades and counting, talent has continued to flock to Amherst. Women’s tennis has been to the national championship five times since 1999, most recently in 2014. In addition to Steinberg’s and Cohen’s singles titles, the College has won the national championship in women’s doubles six times, including four straight from 2011 to 2014.
The first national team championship for Amherst was willed into existence by a small group of student-athletes and their coach. Twenty years later, their accomplishment continues to help define excellence for Amherst athletics.
“Absolutely, I think it paved the way,” says Diamond. “It showed other teams that they could do it.”
Director of Athletics Don Faulstick, then an assistant football coach at Amherst, will never forget when the women returned to the gym with the trophy. “I remember hearing them screaming and running through the halls. I remember thinking how cool it was and how significant it was. That win set the standard for years to come.”
Or, as Ogdon puts it: “I think we just all took Amherst by surprise. It was like we unleashed the magic of Amherst athletics.”