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When the women’s tennis team entered the 2010 season, they had two goals: beat Emory and win the NCAA Championship.
Part one? Check. Part two? That starts today.
After finishing fourth in last year’s NCAA tournament, the third-ranked Maroons (20–3) will begin their quest for a national title this afternoon against Grove City (12–2).
“Last year they were all new for the most part,” head coach Marty Perry said. “They feel like they’ve been around.... The girls are confident. Their sights are set on winning it all, and we can’t control that, but I get the sense that that’s what they’re about. They really believe that; they’re not just saying that.”
Newcomers to the national stage a year ago, with a roster chock-full of first-years streaking to the program’s first Final Four appearance, the Maroons returned with all but one player this season, giving the team a level of experience that has changed their approach to the tournament.
“The tournament’s really big,” second-year Kendra Higgins said. “Last year, we had nothing to lose. This year we’ve shown that we’re really big contenders, so people are obviously going to be gunning for us this time.”
So far this season, the team has proventhat the potential they showed at the end of last season was real. A strong showing from several individuals in the ITA Small College Championship served as a prelude to a strong spring season, in which the Maroons placed second in the Indoor Championships, first in the Midwest Invitational, and won their first UAA title.
Along with another piece of hardware to add to the team’s collection, the UAA Championship meant the Maroons could finally lift the Emory monkey off their backs in time for the postseason. With a long break since that victory, Chicago hopes to carry some of those good vibes into the NCAA tournament.
“I think the win against Emory was huge, mainly because they had not had an upset all season,” assistant coach Taka Bertrand said. “For [the Maroons] to do that was just a big hurdle for them, mentally, to beat one of the teams ranked inside the top three.”
Chicago has had four weeks to think about the NCAA tournament, a longer break than they had last season because the UAA tournament was a week earlier and the NCAA tournament is a week later this year. When the Maroons gathered for their team dinner last night, Higgins said she saw a more focused team than the one that reached the national semifinals a year ago.
“From last year, I feel like we all were just focusing on making a name for ourselves,” she said. “This year, we’ve been focusing on our weaknesses and trying to capitalize on our strengths.... I think we have a deeper understanding of how each match counts, each person has the same responsibility, and when we go out on the court, we’re playing for each other, not just for ourselves.
“We’re much more of a solid team unit because we have a big common goal in mind. I think we’re thinking of a team national title, and that’s it,” she continued.
Chicago has a strong draw for regionals, playing unranked Grove City today and most likely facing off against 21st-ranked Wash U (12–5) on Saturday. Chicago has yet to play the Wolverines, but the Maroons boast an 8–1 win over the Bears already this year, giving the team plenty of confidence that a trip to the semifinals in Virginia will be in store.
Adding to the team’s confidence is the fact that the road to the NCAA title begins at home. The Maroons are hosting regionals for the first time in program history, playing in front of their home crowd for just the third time this spring.
“I think it’s huge,” Higgins said. “We were talking about it at dinner [last night] and we’re so excited to actually have spectators coming out to watch us. We never had the support last year that we have this year, and just because we’re given opportunity to play by our school, that’s the one thing we wanted to do—we wanted to show what we can do. It’s a good opportunity to show what we’re made of.
“We’re pumped up for the match tomorrow,” she exclaimed. “We’re pumped up for this whole weekend!”