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No. 21 Irish Set To Open NCAA Championship Play

May 7, 2003

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – For the eighth consecutive season and the 10th time in the last 11 years, the 21st-ranked University of Notre Dame women’s tennis team has qualified for the NCAA Championships. The Irish have reached the round of 16 in two of the last three seasons, and their best-ever finish came in 1996, when they advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals.

This season, Notre Dame will open its quest for a third trip to the round of 16 in four years when it faces off with No. 38 Missouri Friday at 10 a.m. (CDT) at the Brownlee O. Currey Tennis Center in Nashville, Tenn., on the campus of Vanderbilt University. Should the Irish defeat the Tigers, they would move on to play the winner of Friday’s other first-round match between the No. 10 overall seed, Vanderbilt (ranked 15th nationally) and Boston University. That second-round contest will take place Saturday at 3 p.m. (CDT).

NOTRE DAME SPORTS HOTLINE TO FEATURE IN-MATCH UPDATES: Irish fans can keep up with the action at the 2003 NCAA Women’s Tennis Championships via the Notre Dame Sports Hotline, which will be updated every 15-30 minutes during Irish matches. Semi-live reports can be accessed by dialing (574) 631-3000 and selecting option #8 for tennis. In addition, the official athletic website of the University of Notre Dame,, will feature recaps of all the Irish action at the end of each day.

LAST TIME ON THE COURTS: In perhaps the most dramatic final in BIG EAST Conference women’s tennis history, Notre Dame claimed its fifth BIG EAST title (and first since 2001) with a 4-3 win over (then) 20th-ranked Miami on April 27 at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center in Coral Gables, Fla. The Irish and Hurricanes split the six singles matches, as well as the first two doubles matches, leaving the team title in the hands of the No. 2 doubles contest, which Notre Dame won 8-6. With the victory, the Irish (15-8) earned the BIG EAST’s automatic bid to the NCAA Championships.

The Irish No. 2 doubles team of sophomore Sarah Jane Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.) and freshman Kristina Stastny (St. Louis, Mo./St. Joseph’s Academy) came through with the decisive 8-6 victory to secure the league title, although for a while, it looked as though the Irish pair would win easily. Connelly and Stastny won the first six games of the match and had a 7-1 lead before Miami’s senior tandem of Igna deVilliers and Abby Smith put on their rally caps, winning five straight games to pull back on-serve at 7-6. With Smith serving to even the contest at 7-7, the Irish had their second team match point saved with an overhead by the server. On the next point, Connelly pounded an overhead of her own to give the Irish a third team match point, which they converted thanks to a double fault by Smith.

Irish junior Caylan Leslie (Newport Beach, Calif./Corona del Mar H.S.) and freshman Jennifer Smith (Charlotte, N.C./South Mecklenburg H.S.) also were instrumental in Notre Dame’s final point of the day, dominating Miami’s Staci Stevens and Mari Toro at No. 3 doubles for an 8-2 victory. In the first doubles match completed, the No. 22 team in the nation, Miami’s Melissa Applebaum and Megan Bradley, topped the Notre Dame duo fo freshman Lauren Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.) and junior Alicia Salas (Englewood, Colo./Cherry Creek H.S.), 8-2.

Several of the six singles contests had their own miniature dramas, with four of them going the full three sets. Miami struck first when No. 110 Bradley downed Leslie, the nation’s 40th-ranked player, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, at the No. 1 position. Moments later, Notre Dame got on the board, as Lauren Connelly finished off the Hurricanes’ Sihem Bennacer at the No. 5 flight, 7-6 (3), 6-3. Miami then regained the team lead when Toro closed out Stastny, 6-3, 7-6 (2) at the No. 3 spot.

Trailing 2-1 in the team match, the Irish rallied back behind a pair of astonishing third-set comebacks. At No. 4 singles, Sarah Jane Connelly fell behind 1-5 in the third set of her match with Stevens, but won the next six games to pull out the contest, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5, and even the team score. Soon after, the 93rd-ranked Salas posted a critical victory for Notre Dame, rallying after being down a service break in the third set to upset No. 54 Applebaum at the No. 2 position, 7-5, 4-6, 7-5.

Now leading 3-2, the Irish had a chance to win the conference title in singles play, but Miami’s Sara Robbins outlasted Jennifer Smith at the No. 6 flight and tied the match at three-all, winning 5-7, 6-4, 6-2. That set the stage for the thrilling doubles competition and Notre Dame’s nailbiting triumph.

IRISH IN THE NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP: For the second time in as many years, Notre Dame will go on the road for first and second round action in the NCAA tournament. This is the fifth year in which the NCAA Championships will consist of a 64-team field, with 31 conference champions garnering automatic bids and 33 at-large entries as chosen by the NCAA Women’s Tennis Committee. The first two rounds of the team championships are being contested at 16 campus sites this weekend. The 16 remaining teams will advance to the national site, the Linder Stadium at Ring Tennis Complex in Gainesville, Fla., for the final four rounds of the tournament, to be contested May 15-18.

Notre Dame has qualified for the team portion of the NCAA Championships for the eighth consecutive year and the 10th time in the last 11 seasons, all under the guidance of current head coach Jay Louderback. The best finish for the Irish came in 1996, when they reached the quarterfinals before losing to Stanford, 5-1, in Tallahassee, Fla. Notre Dame has advanced to the round of 16 three other times, including two of the last three seasons, when it defeated Illinois-Chicago (5-0) and South Carolina (5-1) in 2000, and Eastern Michigan (4-0) and Tulane (4-0) in 2001 — both regionals were contested at Notre Dame’s Courtney Tennis Center. In each case, the Irish saw their NCAA Championship run come to an end at the hands of Florida, which registered a 5-0 win in 2000 and a 4-1 victory last season.

Notre Dame is 11-9 all-time in NCAA Championship play and has won at least one match in nine of its previous 10 appearances in the national tournament. The Irish are 5-5 in NCAA competition when playing away from home, although they have lost their last two road matches (2001 vs. Florida, 2002 vs. Wisconsin). Last year’s first-round loss to Wisconsin also represented the only time Notre Dame has failed to win at least once in the NCAA tourney.

In addition to its recent team success, Notre Dame has sent at least one player to either the NCAA singles or doubles tournament every year since 1989. For the fifth time in school history, the Irish will be sending two singles players to the national tournament, as juniors Caylan Leslie (Newport Beach, Calif./Corona del Mar H.S.) and Alicia Salas (Englewood, Colo./Cherry Creek H.S.) were selected to the 64-player competition, which will take place May 19-24 at the Linder Stadium at Ring Tennis Complex in Gainesville, Fla. on the University of Florida campus. It also marks the 14th time in 15 years the Irish have had at least one player qualify for the NCAA Singles Championship.

Notre Dame posted its best individual singles finish in 2001, when Michelle Dasso surged all the way to the NCAA semifinals before falling to eventual national champion Laura Granville of Stanford. Three Irish doubles teams have reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, with Dasso and Jennifer Hall the most recent tandem to do so in 1999. Hall and Tiffany Gates turned the trick in 1998, and Wendy Crabtree and Lisa Tholen were the first Irish pair to advance to the round of eight in 1994.

SCOUTING THE REGIONAL FIELD: Missouri will be the first-round opponent for Notre Dame this season. The Tigers, who are making their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Championships, come into this weekend’s regional ranked 38th in the country with a record of 15-7 overall. Like the Irish, Missouri earned an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament after a regular season in which it reached the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Conference Tournament. The Tigers have won seven of their last 11, and peaked at No. 34 in the rankings on March 24. MU is led by sophomore Urska Juric, who is ranked 36th in the country and has a 30-10 singles record. Meanwhile, the Tiger doubles team of Juric and sophomore Katka Sevcikova is rated No. 15 in the nation, posting a 28-5 record.

Notre Dame and Missouri will be playing one another for the first time. They have met two common opponents in dual match competition this year (Purdue and Texas), with the Irish going 2-0 and the Tigers winding up 1-1 against that duo. Notre Dame is 24-12 (.667) against current Big 12 members all-time, including wins in eight of its last nine matches against that conference.

Boston University comes into the tournament with a 10-11 record, having won five of its last seven matches. BU gained entrance into the NCAA Championships as the America East Conference champion for the fifth consecutive year after defeating Binghamton, 4-1 in the conference title match. Notre Dame has never faced the Terriers, nor have the Irish ever played any current America East member. Meanwhile, BU has played three BIG EAST teams this year, downing Seton Hall (7-0), while falling to Miami (6-1) and Boston College (4-3).

Vanderbilt, seeded 10th overall in the tournament, also earned an at-large berth to the NCAA Championships after reaching the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The 15th-ranked Commodores (18-5) have won nine of the last 11, including a 4-3 victory over then-No. 1 Florida on March 16 at the Currey Tennis Center. Notre Dame and Vanderbilt have met four times in their history, all at neutral sites, with the Commodores holding a 3-1 series edge. The teams faced one another last season in the quarterfinals of the National Team Indoor Championships, with VU taking a 5-2 victory at Wisconsin’s Nielsen Tennis Center. The Commodores took the doubles point, then won four of six singles matches to log the win. Current Irish junior Alicia Salas (Englewood, Colo./Cherry Creek H.S.) did register one of the two team points for Notre Dame in that match, defeating Vanderbilt’s Annie Menees at the No. 5 singles position, 6-3, 6-2.

— ND —