FROMER Stratford-on-Avon coach Natasha Hillyer is celebrating an outstanding run of performances that helped the depleted Warwickshire women’s side avoid relegation from the Aegon County Cup Group One at Eastbourne, writes Sally Jones.
With two of their young internationals Alannah Griffin and Emily Smith sidelined with injury, the Midlanders 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 Lancs 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, although strengthened by rising star Harriet Dart, were no match for last year’s champions Surrey, ensuring Warwickshire’s survival and the 8-1 tally in their final match 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 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,” said Shaw.
“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 lineup are available to play next year, we should have a great chance of finishing strongly – perhaps even taking the title.”