Jan. 18, 2016
By Joanne Norell
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — For University of Notre Dame women’s tennis coach Jay Louderback, last season’s 14-12 campaign was very much a building block.
Sure, their record wasn’t all that the Irish hoped it would be, and their No. 36 final ranking was the program’s lowest in 24 seasons, but with a wealth of experience returning — not to mention a dedicated and energetic group that Louderback enjoys coaching — Notre Dame is primed to reverse its fortunes as the 2016 season commences on Tuesday.
“I think it’s the lowest we’ve been ranked in  years, but for me, as a coach, it was a great year; I enjoyed it.,” Louderback said. “We had a great group, that played hard every match, worked hard in practice every day, that were fun to travel with. … If it had been a bad group and we were ranked low like that, it would have been an awful year. All six [players] are back from that team in singles. They have all gotten a lot more experience and three or four of them made a big jump from last year over the summer and in the fall.”
The Irish, who enter this season ranked 33rd nationally, hope that experience serves them well in a loaded Atlantic Coast Conference, which is likely to again result in close matches. Last season, the Irish played in eight matches that ended in 4-3 scores, as well as a handful of close 5-2 matches, and Louderback would like to see their performance improve in those situations.
The Irish return an experienced core, with all six of last year’s singles starters remaining on the roster. They will add to their ranks this season with the addition of two talented newcomers.
Seniors Quinn Gleason and Julie Vrabel, juniors Monica Robinson, Mary Closs and Jane Fennelly and sophomore Allison Miller return as last season’s starters, combining for a 72-67 record in dual singles matches. Notre Dame will also look for contributions from sophomore Brooke Broda, who returns this season after an injury kept her sidelined as a freshman, and freshman Rachel Chong, a five-star recruit according to TennisRecruiting.net.
Gleason enters the season ranked No. 57 in the Oracle/ITA Women’s National Singles Rankings after posting a 6-2 record in the fall and advancing to the Round of 16 at the ITA Midwest Regional Singles Championship.
Miller returns as the team’s MVP from 2015. The talented sophomore went 23-10 in singles last season, including 16-7 in dual matches and 10-3 in Atlantic Coast Conference play.
A big key for the Irish this year will be Broda, says Louderback. The talented sophomore, who was rated the seventh-best player in her recruiting class by TennisRecruiting.net, played her first meaningful college tennis matches this fall and went 6-1.
“It made a difference in our team last year with [Broda] not being healthy,” Louderback said. “Now having her healthy, having everyone back and now adding [Chong], that experience is really going to help us.”
Health will be the biggest concern for the Irish and will ultimately affect how the lineup looks, says Louderback, with Robinson, Vrabel and Chong dealing with injuries through the fall.
Gleason and Robinson enter the season as the nation’s No. 32-ranked doubles team. The duo went into the fall ranked 10th, but Robinson’s help affected the pair’s ability to compete at the major fall events. The duo went 22-9 last season and ranked as high as No. 14 en route to an at-large berth in the NCAA Doubles Championship.
Louderback was impressed by the doubles combination of Miller and Broda, who played together a bit toward the end of the fall and could wind up in the No. 2 spot in the lineup, while a combination of Closs, Fennelly and Vrabel will likely occupy the No. 3 slot in the lineup.
The Irish will kick off the spring season on Tuesday when they host Western Michigan at 6 p.m. ET at the Eck Tennis Pavilion. Then, the Irish will head to Stillwater, Oklahoma, for the ITA Kickoff Weekend with matches against Oklahoma State (No. 12 in the Oracle/ITA rankings) and either Northwestern (No. 26) or Arizona State (No. 27), January 23-24. The next weekend, the Irish will host a doubleheader with Illinois (No. 58) and Bowling Green.
Following the ITA National Team Indoor Championships (Feb. 5-8), the Irish will return to the Eck Tennis Pavilion to host its first ACC matchup on February 12 against Pittsburgh before heading back to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan (No. 14) on February 14. Notre Dame will head to Purdue on February 17 to take on the Boilermakers (No. 44), then swing back home to host Indiana (Feb. 20; No. 50) and Louisville (Feb. 21) on back-to-back days.
The Irish will close out February on the road, heading first to Boston to face Boston College (Feb. 26; No. 49), then continuing north to face Syracuse (Feb. 28). They will then head south for spring break, first clashing with Miami (No. 13) on March 6 before traveling to Puerto Rico, where they will play both East Carolina and Long Island, which will close out the nonconference schedule.
Notre Dame will welcome Wake Forest (No. 71) on March 18 before heading to North Carolina to take on NC State (March 24) and UNC (No. T-4; March 26). The Irish will open April against Florida State (No. 37) April 1, then head back east to face Duke (No. 16) in Durham, N.C. on April 3. Clemson (No. 20; April 8), Georgia Tech (No. 23; April 10) and Virginia Tech (No. 30) will all visit within a week in mid-April, and the Irish will wrap the regular season at Virginia (No. 7; April 17) before the ACC Championships begin April 20 in Cary, North Carolina.
“The ACC is going to be as good as it ever has,” Louderback said. “We could have five top 10 teams in the conference, and maybe more. It’s going to be good for us and I think it helps us at the end of the year and the NCAA Championship because we’ve played eight teams that could be in the Round of 16. It’s a good schedule for us getting ready for the end of the year.”
Joanne Norell, athletics communications assistant at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 2014 and coordinates communications efforts for the Notre Dame women’s soccer, men’s tennis, women’s tennis and fencing programs. Norell is a 2011 graduate of Purdue University and earned her master’s degree from Georgetown University in 2013.