April 23, 2003
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – The University of Notre Dame women’s tennis team (13-8), aiming for its fifth championship in eight years in the league, will begin postseason play this weekend in the 2003 BIG EAST Championship at the Neil Schiff Tennis Complex on the campus of the University of Miami. The 24th-ranked Irish, who enter as the No. 2 seed for the first time, gained a bye into the semifinals and will open play on Saturday at Noon (EDT) vs. the winner of the opening-round match between No. 3 seed Boston College and No. 6 seed Syracuse. Notre Dame was 2-1 in the regular season against league foes, defeating both the Eagles and fourth-seeded Virginia Tech 6-1 before losing to the tournament’s top seed, #20 Miami, 6-1 on April 12 in the last match of the regular season. Since joining the conference in 1996, the Irish have faced Miami in the championship match every season, winning titles in 1996, ’97, ’99, and 2001.
HOTLINE TO FEATURE IN-MATCH UPDATES: Fans can keep up with the action at the 2003 BIG EAST 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, www.und.com, will feature recaps of all the Irish action at the end of each day.
LAST TIME ON THE COURTS: Notre Dame suffered just its third loss in its last 12 regular-season matches, falling at Miami, 6-1, on April 12 at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes won all three doubles matches and the bottom five singles matches to secure the win and the top seed for the 2003 BIG EAST Championships.
Junior Caylan Leslie (Newport Beach, Calif./Corona del Mar H.S.) provided the lone bright spot for the Irish, registering her ninth win over a ranked opponent this season. The 39th-ranked Leslie rallied from a one-set deficit to topple the nation’s No. 121 player, UM’s Megan Bradley, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, at the No. 1 flight. With the win, Leslie improves to 17-8 this season (15-6 in dual matches) and 3-1 in three-set matches.
Miami (15-5) quickly jumped ahead in the match, winning the three doubles contests by scores of 8-2, 8-5 and 8-5. The Hurricanes then claimed the first three singles matches off the court to clinch the victory. UM freshman Melissa Applebaum, ranked 91st in the country, started the run with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Irish junior Alicia Salas (Englewood, Colo./Cherry Creek H.S.), the No. 87 player, at the No. 2 position. The Miami lead grew again when Staci Stevens fought through a tough first set to defeat Notre Dame freshman Kristina Stastny (St. Louis, Mo./St. Joseph’s Academy) at No. 4, 7-5, 6-1. Mari Toro sealed the Hurricanes’ win with her triumph at the No. 3 flight over Irish senior Katie Cunha (Mercer Island, Wash./Mercer Island H.S.), 7-6 (9-7), 6-1.
After Leslie’s win, Notre Dame (13-8) had a chance to earn additional points at the bottom two singles positions, taking both matches to third sets. However, sophomore Sarah Jane Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.) could not complete her comeback from a one-set deficit at No. 5, falling 6-2, 2-6, 6-1 to UM’s Sihem Bennacer. The loss snapped Connelly’s nine-match winning streak that dated back more than six weeks. Freshman Lauren Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.) endured a fate similar to her sister, at the No. 6 spot, losing to Miami’s Sara Robbins in a third-set match tiebreaker, 6-4, 5-7, 1-0 (10-4).
IRISH IN THE BIG EAST CHAMPIONSHIP: Notre Dame was named the No. 2 seed in the 2003 BIG EAST Championship, which will takes place Friday through Sunday at the Neil Schiff Tennis Complex in Coral Gables, Fla. For the third straight year, the format of the event will be a single-elimination tournament of the top six teams in the league, as selected by the conference, with the top two seeds gaining first-round byes. The winner receives the BIG EAST’s automatic berth into the NCAA Championship, which begins at campus sites on May 9. The Irish earned the No. 1 seed in each of their previous seven years in the conference, advancing to the final each time to face Miami, winning titles in 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2001.
Play gets underway Friday morning with fourth-seeded and 65th-ranked Virginia Tech and the fifth seed, Rutgers, playing at 9 a.m (EDT). In the other quarterfinal matchup, the No. 3 seed Boston College will face sixth-seeded Syracuse at noon. The semifinals are set for Saturday with top-seeded and 19th-ranked Miami taking on the VT-Rutgers winner at 9 a.m., followed by the Irish facing the BC-Syracuse winner at noon. Friday’s losing teams will play at 3 p.m. Saturday in consolation action. The championship and third-place matches are both slated for noon Sunday.
A season ago, the Irish defeated Boston College 4-1 in the semifinals before falling by the same score to Miami in the championship. The Irish won the doubles point, but the ‘Canes rebounded to take each of the first four singles contests completed, winning at Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 6. Alicia Salas (Englewood, Colo./Cherry Creek H.S.) was up a set against Sihem Bennacer at No. 4 when her match was abandoned, while Katie Cunha (Mercer Island, Wash./Mercer Island H.S.) and Ewelina Skaza were in a third set.
Four Notre Dame players have past experience playing in the BIG EAST Championship, combining for a 6-0 record in doubles. Most notably, Salas has a perfect mark, going 2-0 in doubles a year ago and winning once in singles (with her other match abandoned). Sarah Jane Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.) paired with Salas for a pair of doubles wins a year ago, but was 0-1 in singles, with one match unfinished. Cunha is also 2-0 in doubles (with three matches abandoned), and she is 2-1 in singles, with another match not completed. Caylan Leslie (Newport Beach, Calif./Corona del Mar H.S.) was 1-1 in singles in the 2001 tournament.
Leslie is a strong candidate for the 2003 BIG EAST Most Outstanding Player award, as she is the highest-ranked player in the conference. The Irish junior, listed 40th, is 17-8 this season, including 9-3 since moving into the No. 1 singles spot for the first time in her career. After starting the spring 3-5 (following a 14-month layoff due to a shoulder injury), she has won 14 of her last 17 matches and is 9-5 against ranked foes this season. Leslie is 3-0 against league competitors, having beaten Carolyn Kramer of Virginia Tech and Nida Waseem of Boston College at No. 2 before outlasting Miami’s Megan Bradley 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 at No. 1.
Head coach Jay Louderback has been named BIG EAST Coach of the Year five times, including three of the last four seasons. As one of just two league teams currently ranked in the top 30, he will once again be a candidate for the conference’s top coach.
Notre Dame has experienced a tremendous amount of success against BIG EAST opponents over the years, compiling a superb 31-4 record against current league members. In fact, Miami is the only BIG EAST team to solve the Irish, going 4-7 against Notre Dame with three victories coming in conference championship matches (4-2 in 1998, 5-2 in 2000, and 4-1 in 2002). The Hurricanes’ 6-1 win on April 12 marked the first-ever regular-season loss for the Irish against a BIG EAST foe. In tournament play, the Irish have a 16-3 record and have registered shutout victories in 11 of 12 non-championship matches (second round and semifinals) since joining the conference in 1996. A year ago, Boston College managed a point before falling to the Irish.
Aside from Miami, Notre Dame has never lost to another BIG EAST opponent, going 23-0 against the rest of the league all-time. Among the other combatants in this year’s championship field, the Irish are 8-0 against Boston College (including a 6-1 win on Feb. 16), 3-0 against Virginia Tech (including a 6-1 win on Feb. 14), 3-0 against Rutgers and 3-0 vs. Syracuse.
Prior to joining the BIG EAST, Notre Dame competed in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference in women’s tennis from 1989-95. The Irish won seven consecutive league titles and Louderback was honored three times as the conference’s top coach (1989, 1990, 1993). In MCC and BIG EAST play combined, the Irish have won 11 conferecne championships in the last 14 years.
2003 BIG EAST CHAMPIONSHIP FIELD: The top-seeded Hurricanes were listed 24th in the preseason and have been listed among the top 25 all spring, peaking at No. 13 and heading into the postseason at 20th with a 15-5 (3-0 BE) mark. Miami beat Notre Dame 6-1 on April 12 at the Neil Schiff Tennis Complex. The Hurricanes beat five teams currently in the top 40: #24 Notre Dame, #25 Illinois, #31 Virginia, #34 Texas, and #36 Baylor. The Irish and ‘Canes have faced five common opponents — Virginia Tech, Boston College, Texas, William & Mary, and Illinois — with both teams going 4-1 against them, losing only to the Tribe (4-3 for ND and 5-2 for Miami). The Hurricanes have played host to the BIG EAST Championship every year since 1993 and have won a conference-best seven titles in the last 11 years, losing in the final to the Irish in 1996, ’97, ’99, and 2001. Head coach Paige Yaroshuk is in her second season at the helm of the Miami program, having led her squad to the conference title a year ago, while earning BIG EAST Coach-of-the-Year honors. Freshman Melissa Applebaum is ranked 55th in the nation in singles with a 19-9 record, including 15-4 in dual matches, playing Nos. 1-4. After being listed No. 2 nationally in the preseason, sophomore Megan Bradley, who transferred from UCLA prior to this year, is 111th with a 12-8 record, playing at Nos. 1 and 2. Applebaum and Bradley are ranked 22nd in doubles with a 12-2 record, while Applebaum and junior Sara Robbins are still 60th after going 7-3 together earlier this season.
Boston College is the third seed in the championship, having a 12-7 (6-2 BE) record. The Eagles were ranked 69th last week, but fell out of the rankings this week. The Eagles are 1-7 against teams currently ranked and 11-0 against teams currently unranked. The lone victory over a ranked squad was a 5-2 win against Virginia Tech in February in the Eck Tennis Pavilion. Notre Dame and B.C. played three common opponents: VT, Ohio State, and Miami. Both teams beat the Hokies and lost to the Hurricanes, but the Irish beat the Buckeyes, while B.C. lost to Ohio State. The Eagles trail only the Hurricanes with six league titles, including five straight from 1986-90. Since its last championship, B.C. has finished in the top six every year, including second in 1991 and fourth each of the last two years.
Virginia Tech, the No. 4 seed, enters the tournament ranked 65th after being a season-high 60th a week ago. The Hokies are 15-12 (3-3 BE) after starting 9-0 before losing 6-1 to Notre Dame on Feb. 14. Virginia Tech’s conference losses came to the Irish, Miami (5-2), and Boston College (5-2). The Irish and Hokies played four common opponents — William & Mary, Miami, Boston College, and Ohio State — with VT losing to each and Notre Dame beating the Buckeyes and Eagles. The Hokies finished third in both the 2001 and ’02 championships, their first two after joining the conference. Senior Kristen Stubbs is ranked 121st nationally in singles. She is 14-20, but has wins over #20 Daria Panova of Oregon and #33 Candice Fuchs of William & Mary.
Fifth-seeded Rutgers enters the BIG EAST Championship on a seven-match winning streak. The Scarlet Knights are 13-6 (9-2 BE) overall, having lost only to B.C. and Virginia Tech in league action. After not qualifying for the tournament in 2001, Rutgers finished sixth a year ago, matching the best finish for the Scarlet Knights since joining the league in 1996.
Syracuse, the No. 6 seed, was 10-7 (5-2 BE) in the regular season. The Orangewomen lost to Boston College (5-2) and Rutgers (4-3) in conference play. Syracuse finished fifth in the BIG EAST tournament each of the last two years and has been in the top five for five straight seasons.
IRISH HEAD COACH JAY LOUDERBACK: Now in his 14th season under the Golden Dome, Jay Louderback owns a superb 252-123 (.672) record, with a 456-301 (.602) overall mark in 24 years of collegiate coaching. Louderback’s Irish have finished in the national top 30 in each of the last 10 seasons, have won 10 conference titles and registered 20 or more victories five times in the last seven seasons. After taking over a program looking for its first NCAA tournament appearance, Louderback has helped Notre Dame to the NCAAs nine times in the last 10 years, including five appearances in the round of 16 and a 1996 quarterfinal finish. His teams also have been ranked in every set of national rankings for an 11-year span from the beginning of the 1992-93 season to the present. Louderback reached three milestones earlier this season, gaining his 400th career victory as a women’s coach (Jan. 25 vs. Wisconsin), becoming the first coach in Notre Dame women’s tennis history to win 250 matches (March 29 vs. Ohio State), and becoming just the fifth active NCAA Division I women’s coach to win 450 career collegiate matches (March 8 vs. BYU).
Louderback, a four-time Midwest Region Coach of the Year, has been honored as his conference’s top coach on eight occasions, including five times in seven years in the BIG EAST. In his time at Notre Dame, Louderback’s players have earned All-America honors 13 times, won three national ITA awards, and earned 16 invitations to the NCAA singles championship and 10 to the NCAA doubles tournament. His players also have dominated the university awards, leading all sports in both Byron V. Kanaley awards (five) and Francis Patrick O’Connor awards (four). The Arkansas City, Kan., native, and 1976 graduate of Wichita State arrived at Notre Dame prior to the 1990 season after coaching for seven years at his alma mater and three years (men and women) at Iowa State.
AMONG THE NATION’S ELITE: After winning nine of its last 12 matches, including six over Big Ten Conference opponents, Notre Dame rose three spots to 24th in the most recent Omni Hotels Collegiate Tennis Rankings, returning to the Top 25 for the second time in three weeks after a month-long hiatus from that group. The Irish had dropped 33 places in a two-week stretch late last month, a fall that could be attributed to the fact that those were the first sets of rankings to be determined by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s point-per-match computer formula, while each of the previous listings were based on coaches’ votes. The computer rankings do not take into account margin of victory or defeat and, thus, three 4-3 Irish losses to top-15 teams (#9 Tennessee, #11 William & Mary, and #14 Kentucky) count the same as 7-0 defeats.
Notre Dame’s No. 48 ranking on March 26 was the worst for the Irish since the ITA began ranking more than 25 teams in 1993. Prior to that point, Notre Dame had been ranked in the Top 25 in the last 125 sets of rankings released by the ITA, dating back to Fall 1995. Nonetheless, the Irish have been ranked continuously for all of 11 consecutive seasons, a streak dating back to the preseason listing in the fall of 1992 and spanning nearly 200 sets of rankings.
A new set of individual rankings was released this week, with junior Caylan Leslie (Newport Beach, Calif./Corona del Mar H.S.) checking in at No. 40 in singles. Back on March 26, she was as high as 33rd, becoming the highest-ranked Notre Dame player since Michelle Dasso finished her career fifth in the final 2001 rankings. Meanwhile, classmate Alicia Salas (Englewood, Colo./Cherry Creek H.S.) currently checks in at 93rd in singles. In doubles, senior Katie Cunha (Mercer Island, Wash./Mercer Island H.S.) and freshman Kristina Stastny (St. Louis, Mo./St. Joseph’s Academy) dropped to No. 44 (from a high of 27th on March 12), due mainly to the fact the pair have not played together in the last month.
ALMOST, BUT NOT QUITE: Notre Dame has had a series of near-misses in upset attempts this season. The Irish have played seven teams currently ranked in the Top 25, winning just once (a 6-1 victory at No. 25 Illinois on April 2). Three of those contests were decided by 4-3 scores, while another trio were 5-2 decisions. Tennessee, currently ranked eighth, won the doubles point in the last match on-court to defeat the Irish by a point. No. 10 Kentucky got a win at No. 5 with the match tied 3-3 to beat Notre Dame, while 12th-ranked William & Mary rallied from a 2-0 deficit and got three-set wins at Nos. 2 (rallying from down two service breaks, 4-1, in the third) and 4 (with the match tied 3-3) for the victory. The Irish also dropped 5-2 matches to No. 3 Duke, No. 11 North Carolina and No. 18 Arizona State.
TINKERING TURNS TO TRIUMPH: Irish head coach Jay Louderback has proven why he is one of just five active coaches in NCAA Division I women’s tennis with 450 career victories by making three relatively minor lineup changes that have led to much Irish success. At the beginning of March, Louderback flipped his Nos. 1 and 2 players and his Nos. 5 and 6 competitors in the singles lineup. Notre Dame proceeded to go 7-2 in the month after posting a 4-5 record up to that point in the season. Junior Caylan Leslie (Newport Beach, Calif./Corona del Mar H.S.) moved into the No. 1 spot for the first time in her career and is 9-3 in that spot, while classmate Alicia Salas (Englewood, Colo./Cherry Creek H.S.) dropped to No. 2 after being 4-5 at the top spot. Salas has won four of her last five and is 6-5 overall at No. 2. At the bottom of the singles lineup, Louderback flip-flopped the Connelly sisters, acting as a catalyst for both of them to begin hot streaks. Sophomore Sarah Jane Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.) is 11-4 this year at No. 5, while freshman Lauren Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.) has won eight of 11 at No. 6. The two combined for four match-clinching victories during March.
In doubles, Louderback put Leslie into the No. 3 position on Feb. 24. Since then, Notre Dame has won the match’s initial point 10 times in 13 matches (Leslie did not play doubles vs. Miami), after doing so just four times in the initial eight matches of the season.
BIG ELEVEN (OR TWELVE)?: Though Notre Dame participates in the BIG EAST Conference in women’s tennis, a glance at the Irish schedule may not bear out that fact. Notre Dame faced only a trio of BIG EAST foes (Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Miami) during the regular season, but took on a total of eight teams from the Big Ten Conference, including six in seven matches. Only Penn State, Minnesota, and Michigan State from the Big Ten did not play the Irish during the regular season. A year ago, Notre Dame played nine matches against Big Ten teams (including the NCAA tournament), posting a 5-4 mark. In ’03, the Irish went 7-1 against the Big Ten, losing only to No. 19 Northwestern.
Notre Dame has had a long history of playing Big Ten teams, posting an all-time 104-60 (.634) mark, averaging over six matches per season against Big Ten teams in the 27-year history of the program. Each of the six most common opponents for Notre Dame in the history of the program are members of the Big Ten (Northwestern-24 matches, Illinois-23, Purdue-22, Michigan-21, Wisconsin-18, Indiana-17).
DYNAMIC DOUBLES: Since Notre Dame head coach Jay Louderback made a minor change in his doubles lineup on Feb. 24, inserting Caylan Leslie (Newport Beach, Calif./Corona del Mar H.S.), the Irish have won the doubles point in 10 of the 12 matches Leslie has played in, including the last seven in a row. Notre Dame had taken a 1-0 lead in four of the eight matches prior to that. Overall, the Irish have won the doubles point 14 times in 21 matches this season, including nine of 11 contests in the Eck Tennis Pavilion. Notre Dame is 11-3 when winning the first point and 2-5 when dropping it.
SECOND TO NONE: Notre Dame’s No. 2 doubles team, junior Alicia Salas (Englewood, Colo./Cherry Creek H.S.) and freshman Lauren Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.), has been outstanding of late, winning nine of its last 11 regular-season matches. The pair has been a major reason the Irish have won the doubles point 10 times in the last 13 matches, including seven of the last eight. The team has been especially effective in the clutch, posting a 4-1 record as the last match remaining on-court with the doubles point still hanging in the balance. In that situation, Salas and Connelly won against Wisconsin (8-6), Kentucky (8-6), Michigan (9-8), and Ohio State (9-8), while losing to Tennessee (8-5). The Irish pair is 12-6 in dual matches and 15-8 overall, while its match vs. BYU was abandoned with Notre Dame leading 6-3.
COUNT ON THE CONNELLYS: Irish sophomore Sarah Jane Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.) and freshman Lauren Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.) have both been consistently superb in singles of late, accounting for two major reasons the Irish won nine of their last 12 regular-season matches. Sarah Jane Connelly has won nine of her last 10 matches at No. 5 to improve to a team-high 22-11 overall this season, including 14-6 in dual matches. Since being moved into the No. 6 position on March 1, Lauren Connelly is 9-3 after holding an 11-11 mark up to that point.
LETHAL LESLIE: Irish junior Caylan Leslie (Newport Beach, Calif./Corona del Mar H.S.), who missed all of last spring with a shoulder injury after going 30-12 as a freshman, has returned to action this spring with much success, establishing herself as one of the most dangerous players in college tennis. She is 17-8, including 15-6 in dual matches, and is ranked 40th nationally in singles, having defeated nine ranked players. Leslie returned after a 14-month layoff at the Collegiate Tennis Kickoff Classic, going 2-2 with wins over #60 Tina Hojnik of Georgia and #83 Jennifer Magley of Florida. After starting the dual-match season 1-3, she has won 14 of her last 17 matches, including straight-set wins over #15 Amanda Johnson of Duke, #26 Candice Fuchs of William & Mary, #48 Nathalie Roels of Kentucky, #98 Karin Coetzee of Wake Forest, and #105 Kendra Strohm of Texas. She moved into the No. 1 singles position for the first time in her career at March 1 and is 9-3 at that spot. Six of her losses this season came to players currently ranked, including three in the top 15, with one decision in a match tiebreaker and another in a third set. In addition, she had to retire two points from a straight-set victory vs. Michigan’s Michelle DaCosta.
COMEBACK CONNELLY: In nine matches in March, Sarah Jane Connelly (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness H.S.) lost the first set on five occasions, but rebounded to win each time, grabbing victories vs. Wake Forest, BYU, Arizona State, Michigan, and Purdue. In all this season, she has dropped the opening frame 19 times, but holds a 9-10 record in those matches. She is 12-3 in 2002-03 in matches that extend beyond the second set (7-3 in three-setters and 5-0 in match tiebreakers). A year ago, she was 3-11 when losing the initial set and 3-7 in matches decided in more than two sets.
THOMPSON TWINS SET TO JOIN IRISH: In November, Jay Louderback announced the signing of two incoming freshmen for the 2003-04 school year. Catrina Thompson (Las Vegas, Nev./Bishop Gorman H.S.) and Christian Thompson (Las Vegas, Nev./Bishop Gorman H.S.) have signed national letters of intent to enroll at Notre Dame next year and join the Irish tennis team in the fall. The sisters were ranked No. 1 in the USTA Girls’ 18-and-under national doubles rankings last year and both are among the top 16 high school seniors in the country in singles. The Thompsons, who helped Bishop Gorman High School to the Nevada state championship, have a number of notable juniors doubles titles in the 18s to their credit, including the 2001 Super National Winter Doubles Championship, the ’01 National Clay Court Championships and the ’02 National Grass Court Championship. Catrina Thompson is 39th in the USTA girls’ 18s singles rankings and is the 16th-highest-ranked prep senior in the United States. Christian Thompson is ranked 11th nationally in singles and is fifth among players who will enter college in the fall.