Joulia Likhanskaia '17 made Bowdoin tennis history last weekend, becoming the first Polar Bear to advance to the finals match in singles at the NCAA Championships, hosted this year in Mason, Ohio. Additionally, Likhanskaia joined teammate Tiffany Cheng '16 as the first Bowdoin women's doubles team to win a match in the NCAA Tournament by advancing to the competition's quarterfinals.

Singles players and doubles teams are selected for the championships each year based on a number of factors, including win-loss records and strength of schedule. After the 32 individuals and 16 pairs are chosen, the NCAA Division III Women's Tennis Committee seeds the tournaments.

Though Likhanskaia was not awarded one of the tournament's top eight seeds (the only seeds indicated in the bracket), she was by no means considered an underdog going in.

“Seeds don’t mean a lot," said Hobie Holbach, Head Coach of Bowdoin Women's Tennis. "I don’t put a lot of stock in them because our region is by far the strongest and usually they just balance it out. The girl who was seeded No. 2, [Joulia] has two wins over. I didn’t care [about seeds] and neither did she."

Likhanskaia won each of her first three matches in two sets, including a 6-4, 6-2 quarterfinal victory over Amherst's Sue Ghosh on Friday. However, these early-round matches presented a mental challenge that later-round competition did not, according to Likhanskaia.

“The first match is definitely one of the hardest because you have to get past being nervous. I thought I did a good job of doing that," she said. "From then on, I gained more confidence throughout the tournament."

She faced trouble in the semifinals on Friday afternoon, however, against Juli Raventos of Williams. After winning the first set 6-3, she dropped the second 6-1 before falling into a 3-0 hole to start the decisive third set.

“I had to stay mentally tough, and [Coach Holbach] was saying ‘Play your game. Be aggressive,’" said Likhanskaia. "I didn’t want to fade in the third set, and I kept thinking that I had put in so much work to get that far, so I didn’t want to let it all go."

Likhanskaia managed to claw back within 5-4 before taking the final three games of the set to win the match and advance to the championship match the next day against Eudice Chong of Wesleyan.

Chong, the tournament's No. 1 seed, had not lost a match all season. In fact, she had only dropped a single set—a 6-4 defeat to Likhanskaia in Claremont, Calif. in early March.

“I was one of the only people to play a really close match with her," said Likhanskaia. "I had nothing to lose."

The final was a nail-biter. After Likhanskaia and Chong each took a set 6-4, Likhanskaia opened a 5-4 lead in the third set before the Wesleyan first year won three straight games to take home the national title.

Holbach credited Likhanskaia's multifaceted game in aiding her tournament run.

“She can do just about anything with the ball," he said. "She doesn’t have one style. She’s very adaptable to different types of players. She can play very aggressively or she can play steady. She can hit powerfully and she can play finesse. She’s a whole-court player."

"To go five matches, you need a little luck and some breaks and you gotta play well, so those things came together."

As a doubles team, Likhanskaia and Cheng entered the tournament knowing they had a chance to be the first to leave a Polar Bear-sized paw print on the championship bracket.

“We really just wanted to get through the first round, because Coach told us that no one in team history had ever won a round at Nationals. So that was our goal going in," said Cheng. "But once we got there and saw the competition, we were pretty confident in ourselves that we could get further, especially with how Joulia was playing in singles. That confidence carried over to doubles."

The pair got the landmark win on Thursday, beating Ariana Iranpour and Megan Tang of the University of Chicago 6-3, 6-1. According to Holbach, Likhanskaia and Cheng leveraged their individual strengths to play well as a team.

“Joulia’s the one at the net who picks off a lot of balls, and Tiffany sets her up. Tiffany’s sort of the point guard of the team," he said.

The duo looked poised to advance even further in Friday's quarterfinal match, as they took the first set and held a 5-2 lead in the second against Patricia Kirkland and Sonja Meighan of Washington & Lee. Their opponents had other ideas, however, storming back to win the set 7-5 before winning the final set 6-4 to advance.

"Our confidence carried over from the first match, the strategy was there, we had the game plan, but I think the nerves just started to kick in," said Cheng. “Altogether we played a great match."

Likhanskaia and Cheng believe their successes are just the start for the entire Bowdoin women's tennis team, which saw its season end in a close defeat to Middlebury at a regional final hosted in Brunswick.

“It shows that we have to keep going. We’re right there every year," said Cheng. "Teams that we’ve beaten in the regular season made it to Nationals."

"Our program keeps improving every year, so hopefully we’ll go even farther next year, including with the whole team," said Likhanskaia.