Feb. 13, 2012
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2012 Notre Dame spring sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish women’s tennis team, which made its 16th consecutive NCAA Championship appearance last year and hopes a veteran squad can lead it back to s place it visited not so long ago — the Final Four.
While the 2010-11 season saw the Irish return to the NCAA Team Tournament yet again – the 16th consecutive year the team has done so – a second round exit from the festivities has left the Irish with a hunger to return to the tournament again in 2011-12 and hopefully make a deeper run in the field.
Nine-time BIG EAST Coach of the Year Jay Louderback, now entering his 23rd season at the helm of the Irish, returns an extremely talented roster to the courts this season that saw only one player graduate from the ’10-11 squad. A pair of gifted and veteran seniors will oversee the remainder of the squad that fits together one junior, four sophomores and one freshman.
“This year’s pressure will be different,” stated Louderback. “I know I felt more pressure last year after two straight semifinals and I’m sure our team did as well. We should start around 20th in the preseason rankings, which will give us the opportunity to surprise some teams. I think a key will be a very solid doubles lineup.”
The Irish are coming in off of another successful season that saw the team finish with a record of 17-10, win their fourth consecutive BIG EAST Championship and earn their 16th consecutive bid to the NCAA Tournament. In addition, the team ended the year ranked in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) top 25 for the seventh straight year, finishing the season ranked 20th while several of the players copped individual honors for their on-court performances.
The lone piece of the puzzle that must be replaced from the ’10-11 foundation is Kristen Rafael. The Grand Prairie, Texas, native will be a tough asset to replace as she enjoyed her most successful season with the Irish this past year that saw her find her niche in singles play at the No. 4 court. She put together a streak of seven-straight victories at that court to conclude her season, including being recognized as the BIG EAST Player of the Week during that run; the first time in her career she had received the distinction. In addition to her revamped singles play, Rafael always provided backing to a perennially tough doubles lineup that the Irish feature. Over her four-year career, Rafael posted a total of 55 doubles victories including 35 during the dual season. Additionally, she graduated having finished with a winning doubles dual record all three years in which she posted at least one decision.
While Rafael’s calming presence will certainly be missed by her teammates, a pair of trusted and match-savvy senior co-captains look to fill that void. Kristy Frilling arguably has already established herself as one of the most decorated players to come through the Notre Dame tennis program. A two-time BIG EAST Player of the Year selection and four-time ITA All-American, Frilling has served as the teams No. 1 player in singles for each of the past two seasons while also playing as part of the No. 1 doubles team each of her first three years. The Sidney, Ohio, native looks to continue to build off a successful career that has seen her post a combined 84 singles wins, including 40 at the No. 1 court in dual matches as well as 99 doubles wins with 70 of those at the No. 1 court.
Teaming with Frilling at the top of the Irish lineup will be fellow senior Shannon Mathews, who for the past two seasons has been the primary staple at No. 2 singles, while having also moved up to team with Frilling at the No. 1 doubles position beginning last season. Coming off a season that saw her capture BIG EAST Tournament Most Outstanding Performer as well as a citation as an All-BIG EAST Team selection, Mathews looks to build off of a season that saw her go 19-3 at the No. 2 court and earn a berth to the NCAA Singles Championship for the first time in her career. With a combined 123 dual-match victories between the two of them, Frilling and Mathews should provide plenty of leadership and expertise to the remainder of the Notre Dame roster this season.
“Both Kristy and Shannon have had the opportunity to learn from some great seniors and leaders,” remarked Louderback. “So they know how important leadership is to being a winning team. Being our top two players they have the respect of the rest of the team and all of our team knows how much national experience they have.”
Now entering her third year with the Irish program, junior Chrissie McGaffigan will also step into more a leadership role amongst her peers. While the ’10-11 dual campaign got off to a bit of a rocky start for the Davenport, Iowa, native, she was able to bounce back come season’s end to put together a record of 8-4 once making the move to the No. 5 court. That finish, coupled with the successful inaugural campaign of her Irish career that saw her named BIG EAST Freshman of the Year, shows the potential and talent that McGaffigan can bring to the court on any given day and in ’11-12 look for her to become an important fixture for the Irish rotation.
“Chrissie has made a big improvement in her approach to practice and I think that will transfer into match play when the spring season begins,” expressed Louderback. “She has the ability to play high in our lineup. Her doubles play really improved at the end of last year and that has carried over to this fall as well.”
Perhaps there is no more important class to Notre Dame’s success this upcoming season then that of the sophomores. After being thrown into the competitive fire during their first campaign, the talented quartet looks to show an improved learning curve to the collegiate game and a propensity for winning important matches wherever they may fall within the dual lineup.
Jennifer Kellner enjoyed probably the busiest first year amongst the four last season, putting together a fine record of 25-6, including seeing time at No. 3,4 and 5 singles at periods during the dual slate. In addition to being named to the All-BIG EAST Team, the Smithtown, N.Y., product also quickly made a name for herself in the ITA national rankings on the singles circuit and established herself as a tough doubles player in mixed time between teaming with McGaffigan and fellow sophomore Julie Sabacinski.
Sabacinski proved to be one of the scrappier players on the Irish roster, refusing to give up on a match no matter what the circumstance may be. The Plantation, Fla., resident ended the year with a 10-10 dual record in time between courts No. 5 and 6, but ended her season on a high note, winning each of her final four contests on the campaign. In addition, Sabacinski found a niche at the No. 3 doubles court, recording nine wins.
One of the bigger hitters on the Irish squad, Britney Sanders hopes to step to the forefront this season and challenge for one of the top spots in the Irish singles rotation. After not taking to the court during the regular season in ’10-11, Sanders got acclimated to dual play with a singles and doubles match in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Northwestern. That taste of action, mixed with the power game she brings on court, hopes to mix into a successful sophomore season for the Ontario, Calif., native.
The final member of the sophomore class is JoHanna Manningham, who looks to provide additional depth to a talent-rich roster. A local product of the team, the Mishawaka, Ind., native concluded last season with five victories overall in singles while posting four more in doubles play. With a year of knowledge at her disposal she hopes to continue to build on those totals going forward this season.
“The good thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores,” said Louderback. “They understand now how important it is to practice hard every day and they have adjusted to the way we practice. In the juniors, they are used to one-on-one practice and in college it is about improving and helping your teammates improve. By now they also know what to expect when we are on the road.”
One new cog joins the Irish fold in ’11-12 in the form of Katherine White of Columbus, Ga. One of the top recruits out of the state of Georgia, White also brings a very powerful attack to the court as she utilizes all of her 5-11 frame to get extra pop on the ball. The talented newcomer brings with her an experience of winning after helping her Brookstone High School team capture the state championship back-to-back years during her freshman and sophomore seasons, while she, herself, was named as the Team MVP and an all-city selection both campaigns.
“Katherine brings a big hitting game to the table,” stated Louderback. “She is working on being a little more consistent. She also will play a big part in our doubles success.”
The returning experience to the Irish lineup should provide a needed expertise to an always-difficult schedule, which again holds true for the upcoming campaign. Of the 24 potential matchups that are on the Notre Dame schedule, 15 of them were ranked in the final ITA rankings in ’10-11, including four of which (Duke, North Carolina, Baylor, Michigan) that were in the top 10. However, with a lineup that looks to bring a challenge from No. 1 all the way through No. 6 singles and at each doubles court, Louderback sees this as a more manageable schedule than last season.
“We went from being a very young team last year to having much more experience this year,” remarked Louderback. “Dual matches are so different from what juniors coming in to college have experienced. Now they are not only playing for themselves but their teammates and school. The pressure is much different and it takes some time to feel comfortable playing dual matches, which I think this team is beginning to get more comfortable with now.”
This year’s schedule sees the Irish open up with a trifecta of home matches to begin the campaign against Cincinnati (Jan. 21) as well as Missouri and IPFW (Jan. 22) before heading off to Ann Arbor for qualifying matches for the 2012 National Team Indoors which, should the Irish qualify for, would take place from Feb. 10-13 in Charlottesville, Va.
Two tough road tests precede that event, as Notre Dame heads to the Volunteer State for showdowns against Tennessee (Feb. 3) and Vanderbilt (Feb. 5). The remainder of the month of February and the beginning of March sees the squad enjoy a lengthy six-match home docket that features contests against North Carolina (Feb. 18), Illinois (Feb. 19), Indiana (Feb. 24), Georgia Tech (Feb. 26), Iowa (March 2) and Duke (March 3).
A spring break trip to Hawai’i then awaits the Irish, as they head to Honolulu for three matches against the likes of Texas Tech (March 12), Hawai’i (March 14) and Wyoming (March 15) before returning to Ann Arbor, Mich., for a battle against rival Michigan on March 21.
A pair of BIG EAST matchups then face the Irish as they take on Marquette (March 25) and DePaul (March 31) at home before opening up a tough three-match stretch to begin April against national powers Northwestern (April 4), Baylor (April 7) and Texas A&M (April 9). The season concludes with two more conference tussles as the team faces off against USF (April 13) at home before heading to the Bluegrass State to face Louisville (April 15).
Postseason play then gets underway as the Irish head to the BIG EAST Championships (April 19-22) in Tampa, Fla., hoping to claim their fifth straight conference title and an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. This year’s NCAA Championship will see the first and second rounds hosted by conference sites (May 11-12) before moving to Athens, Ga., from May 17-28 for the remainder of the team tournament and the singles and doubles draws, a venue that Louderback hopes his team is able to visit come seasons end.
“Our goal coming into this season is to win the BIG EAST and then go as far as possible in the NCAA tournament. A good run at the end of the year is very possible. It will start with our seniors and the leadership they can provide.”
— ND —