Report by Sally Jones
FORMER Stratford-on-Avon coach Natasha Hillyer produced an outstanding run of performances that helped the depleted Warwickshire women’s side avoid relegation from the Aegon County Cup Group One at Eastbourne.
The Midlanders, with two of their young internationals Alannah Griffin and Emily Smith sidelined with injury, knew they faced a tough week and captain Katie Shaw split her most experienced pairing of Hillyer and Coventry’s Soumeya Anane who had been playing together in European satellite tournaments, instead pairing them with less experienced youngsters.
The strategy paid off in the opening 6-3 victory over Middlesex, the scratch partnership of Hillyer and the big-hitting debutant Summer Yardley, 17, winning three out of three.
Despite losses to the highly-fancied Surrey, Kent and Hertfordshire sides, the pair battled on, picking up several crucial rubbers that kept Warwickshire hopes alive.
However, they went into the rain-affected final day lying second last in the table and knowing that their only chance of staying up in the elite group depended on an emphatic victory over Lancashire and for Middlesex to lose to Surrey.
Hillyer, now partnering Leyla Ogan, the Edgbaston Priory Club Racquets manager, came agonisingly close against the Lancashire first pair, losing on a sudden death championship tiebreak 12-10.
Anane then came in to allow Hillyer to rest a painful hamstring and the match swung firmly Warwickshire’s way as they thrashed Lancashire 8-1, the teenage third pair of Summer Yardley from Solihull and Katie Malazonia, 18, sensationally upsetting the Lancashire first pair for the loss of just four games.
Middlesex were no match for last year’s champions Surrey, ensuring Warwickshire’s survival and the 8-1 tally in their final match even catapulted the Midlanders up the table into third place, ahead of Surrey on rubbers and condemning Middlesex and Lancashire to relegation. Unbeaten Kent took the title with Hertfordshire runners-up but captain Katie Shaw looked utterly relieved at her side’s grandstand finish.
‘I was amazed at how everyone rose to the occasion when it really mattered most,” she said. “Natasha is one of our most experienced players and she combined superbly with young Summer Yardley, helping her with doubles strategy and encouraging her to play positively and keep battling. even in the toughest matches.
“Finishing third above Surrey was a real bonus and the big win against Leicestershire crucially boosted our rubbers total. I know that if most of our current line-up are available to play next year, we should have a great chance of finishing strongly – perhaps even taking the title.”
Stratford coach Cameron Malik also lent his experience to a teenage newcomer Oliver Nolan but despite their impressive showing at third pair, Warwickshire men narrowly failed to win promotion from Group Five at Felixstowe.
Their hopes were ended by a 5-4 defeat to Leicestershire on the final day.
Lying third at the start of the day following three hard-fought victories over Durham, Nottinghamshire and Gloucestershire, Warwickshire simply needed victory over the group leaders to ensure a return to Group Four and the match remained on a knife-edge throughout.
Malik and 19-year-old Nolan, from Sutton Coldfield, played a fine strategic match to defeat their opposite numbers from a set down.
However, in the crucial rubber, Coventry coaches Simon Ferguson and Richard Partridge, leading by a set against the Leicestershire seconds, just failed to clinch the nerve-wracking second set tiebreak, then lost the deciding set 4-6.
Although captain Nathan Rooney, from Solihull, and junior international Luke Hammond, 19, scored easy victories over the second and third pairs, they lost in straight sets to the powerful Leicestershire firsts Thomas Kisiel and Benjamin Mullis, who raced through all three of their rubbers without dropping a set. With the scratch pairing of Malik again inspiring the talented but inexperienced Nolan, the partnership’s fine run of form augurs well for next year.
“I’m amazingly proud of all the guys who gave their all,” said Rooney. “No one stopped battling away and playing each point as though their life depended on it. It was a huge team effort and Cam Malik’s new partnership with young Oliver Nolan was a real highlight. We’ll be back hungrier than ever this time next year ready to go again in the Bears quest for promotion.”