Jan. 21, 2011
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2011 Notre Dame spring sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish women’s tennis team, one of the nation’s top programs for many years and fresh off consecutive trips to the NCAA Championship semifinals in 2009 and 2010.
After making back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Championship semifinals, the 2010-11 Notre Dame women’s tennis team will look to build off the success of the past two seasons. Eight-time BIG EAST Coach of the Year Jay Louderback will have one of his youngest teams in his 22-year tenure at Notre Dame, mixing in one senior, two juniors and one sophomore amongst a group of three talented freshmen.
The Irish are coming off a 26-4 season and a perfect 7-0 BIG EAST conference record in 2009-10, while defeating 16 top-50 teams (according to ITA polls), with 10 of those opponents falling inside the top 25. This success led Notre Dame to a fifth-place finish in the final ITA poll. The 2010-11 campaign will be spearheaded by four veterans that have enough experience to continue the tradition of a national power.
Kristen Rafael represents the lone senior on the Irish roster this season and serves as the only team captain. After being a junior mentor the past season, Rafael looks to take the leading role for this year’s young team. She completed the ’09-’10 season at No. 5 and No. 6 singles with an 11-8 dual record and spent most of the season at No. 3 doubles, finishing with a 12-8 record. The Grand Prairie, Texas product has plenty of tennis knowledge on her side entering her fourth year and will look to share valuable experience with the youthful Irish roster.
“Kristen is going to be a key for us,” Louderback says. “Not only on the court, but off the court as well because she is our only captain and our only senior, so a lot of the leadership responsibilities will fall on her. In the past we have had more than one, but now with just one she is the only senior and we are expecting a lot out of her.
The lone senior on this year’s Notre Dame roster, Kristen Rafael will assume a leadership role as team captain in 2010-11.
“She is doing a great job so far. Tennis-wise, she just needs to be more consistent. She has always shown times where she has been very good in the past, and usually when it comes down to the end of the year and we need her to play well, she has, but its going to be a key for her to be consistent all year. She plays a big game. She hits the ball hard, and has the ability to play high in our lineup.”
Leading the junior attack for the Irish this year is last year’s BIG EAST Player of the Year, Kristy Frilling. The Sidney, Ohio, native amassed a 21-7 singles dual record and a 36-5 doubles mark, both at the No. 1 position. Frilling teamed up with Kali Krisik (’10) in doubles, advancing to the NCAA doubles tournament quarterfinals. The duo finished the year with a 34-3 mark on the season – including a perfect 25-0 mark during the dual season – while posting a streak of 27-consecutive match victories.
The tandem also earned national recognition in the rankings, climbing as high as No. 2 in the doubles polls. In addition to great doubles success, Frilling also earned a berth into the NCAA singles tournament last year. She was named to the `09-10 ITA Collegiate All-Star team for the second consecutive year as well as being named a 2010 ITA All-American in both the singles and doubles teams.
“Kristy Frilling is just an explosive player,” Louderback exclaims. “She can hit every shot from every spot on the court. She hits the ball hard, and she has worked hard on being able to slow the ball up occasionally, and to play better defense. Usually her defense is a hard hit ball, and that gets her in trouble. Now she is doing a much better job if she gets in trouble on a point to slow the ball down and getting back in it, and not trying to win the point from a ridiculous spot on the court, even though she has the ability to do that. She is doing a much better job of it. She also is volleying much better. She’s taking advantage of how hard she hits by hitting more balls out of the air, and I think that will help her move up through the top 10, and maybe even help her win a national championship.”
Shannon Mathews bookends the talented duo of juniors for the Irish and looks to build off her 17-11 singles dual record at the No. 2 spot and 19-6 doubles record. She showed her talent in spurts last year, including knocking off five nationally-ranked opponents. The Birmingham, Mich. product was one of five Irish players named to 2009-10 all-BIG EAST team, her second consecutive season earning that honor.
Junior Kristy Frilling was an ITA All-American last year after piling up gaudy numbers at both No. 1 singles (21-7) and doubles (36-5) last year, reaching the NCAA quarterfinals in doubles.
“Shannon has always been at the top of our lineup in singles and I’m not concerned at all about her singles,” Louderback says. “She is a great competitor, works really hard in practice and in matches, and her big thing for us this year is going to be how well she does in doubles. We need her to step up and play high in our doubles lineup, and she has the doubles ability. She has gotten a lot better around the net, and she has that ability to step up and do it. For her it’s just a matter of consistency, and being consistent in our doubles.”
Chrissie McGaffigan returns after a stellar freshman season where she competed at third singles. She posted a 16-9 dual singles record and an 18-9 mark in doubles action. The highly-recruited Davenport, Iowa, native was named to the 2009-10 all-BIG EAST team on top of earning BIG EAST Freshman of the Year honors, the second consecutive Irish played to win the award. McGaffigan also was honored as the 2010 ITA Midwest Rookie of the Year, becoming the first Irish women’s player to receive that accolade since Irish great Michelle Dasso earned that title in the 1998 season.
“Chrissie is a little bit like Frilling because she likes to hit the ball hard. Her biggest thing, as well, is getting her to come to the net more. She hits a big ball. She is very fast. She has a good serve. She really can do everything. It is just a matter of her putting it all together and doing everything. Instead of trying to hit the ball hard, she has to be a little bit more of an all-around player because she does everything so well. She needs to use all of her strokes – her volley, her overhead, she has a good drop shot and great touch. She really has everything. She just needs to get to a point where she uses all of them.”
Three talented freshmen join the fold for the upcoming season and will be counted on to make immediate contributions for the dual rotation. The ’10 recruiting class is ranked as the 11th best class in the nation according to tennisrecruiting.net.
The top recruit out of the state of New York, freshman Jennifer Kellner joins the lineup as a very sound player, taking advantage of every inch of the court with a precision style of game. The Smithtown, N.Y., product was a decorated high school player, taking home a singles and doubles state title during her four years. The 28th-best recruit in the nation was named captain her senior year while collecting All-American honors.
Julie Sabacinski enters as a talented product out of Plantation, Fla. She finished rated the ninth-best recruit in the state and 49th-best nationally and helped guide her team from the No. 1 singles position to four Class 2A Florida state titles.
JoHanna Manningham joins the Fighting Irish from nearby Mishawaka, Ind. She was rated sixth in the Hoosier State in the ’10 recruiting class, garnered conference championship honors and made it as a state finalist in singles in 2008. She also was selected all-conference and all-state four years and chosen captain her senior year.
“The freshmen will be a good group,” Louderback remarks. “They are going to be a good class. They are all good doubles players, which is a key for us because we lost a lot of good doubles players from last year’s class. They also compete well. They all bring something a little bit different to the team.
Sophomore Chrissie McGaffigan became the first Notre Dame player in 12 years to be named ITA Midwest Region Rookie of the Year, copping that award and BIG EAST Freshman of the Year accolades in 2010 after posting a 16-9 singles record and 18-9 doubles mark.
“Julie Sabacinski is a kid that is a little more all-around,” Louderback continues. “She can come in or stay back. She is a good doubles player and volleys well. Jennifer Kellner is just a great competitor and doesn’t miss. She is on the baseline and is as solid as you are ever going to find. She can come in if she has to, but she is just really solid from the baseline. JoHanna Manningham is a kid that works hard and is really going to develop. She has a lot of ability. She has some speed, moves well and now we are just working on some things with her. So I think as a whole, they bring a lot of different things to the table. I don’t think this is a class that is all one thing. They aren’t all just big hitters, they bring a lot of different things to the program.”
The Irish have yet another difficult road ahead of them to get back to the NCAA Championships in 2011.
The Irish will open up in Champaign, Ill., on Saturday with a match versus Illinois before opening up a two-match home stand competing with Yale and then either Arkansas or Utah in ITA National Team Championship qualifying. Notre Dame then hits Tobacco Road to battle North Carolina on Feb. 5 and Wake Forest on Feb. 6. After another three match home stand (Feb. 10-13) against Michigan, Vanderbilt and Wisconsin, the Irish hope to compete in the National Team Indoor Championships in Charlottesville, Va., from Feb. 18-21.
The Irish then hit the road four days later as they travel to Montgomery, Ala., to compete in the eight-team Blue-Gray National Tennis Classic, Feb. 25-27. The Irish return to the Crossroads of America following that to take on Indiana in Bloomington before returning home to take on Baylor on March 6.
The team then travels to the Sunshine State to take on USF (March 15), Duke (March 17) and Tennessee (March 19) in Tampa, Fla. The Fighting Irish continue on to play Georgia Tech in Atlanta before traveling back to northern Indiana for matches against Long Beach State and Texas A&M.
Trips to Evanston, Ill., and Milwaukee, Wis., to play Northwestern (April 7) and Marquette (April 17), respectively, close out the road portion of the season. The Irish finish up regular season play by taking on BIG EAST foe DePaul (April 23). The Courtney Tennis Center/Eck Tennis Center and Leeper Park will then once again be the dwelling place for the BIG EAST Championships from April 28-May 1 as the Irish will look to win their fourth straight BIG EAST title.
The NCAA First and Second Rounds will be held at various school sites (May 13-15), and the winners will get the right to travel to Palo Alto, Calif., for the NCAA Championships May 20-30.
“The BIG EAST is getting tougher,” Louderback affirms. “We had three teams in the top 30 last year, and that’s good for us. South Florida is going to be very good this year, and they are going to want to do everything they can to come in here and win the BIG EAST. So the BIG EAST is important to us, and then the NCAAs. Seeing how we have had two really good runs the last two years, and really the last five years, we have done really well; we just hope we can compete with how we have done the last few years. I think the key for that to happen will be our doubles. I think our singles lineup could be as strong as we have ever had, but the key is going to be doubles. Losing Krisik and (Cosmina) Ciobanu last year from the doubles lineup is tough because they were as good as you are going to find in doubles. That is going to be the key for us, getting the right combinations.”
— ND —