Jan. 15, 2015
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The University of Notre Dame women’s tennis program learned a lot in its first season of membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference last year – not least of which being that the former BIG EAST Conference powerhouse would have face many more challenges in one of the toughest tennis conferences in the country.
The Irish, which finished last season with an 18-10 record and No. 19 Intercollegiate Tennis Association ranking, finished seventh in the ACC after a loaded conference season. This season, the Irish are projected to finish similarly; they will take a No. 20 ranking into the season, but have six conference teams ranked above them.
That’s just fine with head coach Jay Louderback, who viewed last season’s ACC gauntlet was the best preparation for the NCAA Tournament. That won’t change this year as the Irish eye a return to the championship’s Round of 16 and beyond.
“Last year, the conference really helped us get ready for the NCAA Tournament,” Louderback said. “We had so many tough matches and we played outdoors a lot in the spring and even before spring break we were outdoors a lot (because of ACC rules). We got to the NCAA Tournament and we beat DePaul and Northwestern in the first few rounds and they were very good teams. But we played them outdoors and we had played so many tough matches (in the ACC) that we felt like it made a big, big difference for us. I feel like the conference tournament will do the same, and the conference in general will do the same for us this year.”
Singles and Doubles Lineups
The Irish will have to do without graduated seniors Jennifer Kellner, Julie Sabacinski and Britney Sanders, who played significant roles for the Irish a year ago. Kellner and Sanders combined for 38 singles wins last year, while all three were in the regular doubles lineup. Notre Dame will instead look for contributions from young returning players who have made strides throughout the fall season.
Most visibly will be sophomore Monica Robinson, who earned a spot at No. 1 doubles with junior Quinn Gleason. The pair posted an impressive fall with an 8-2 record and trips to the ITA Women’s All-American Invitational and the USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships. Robinson and Gleason are ranked 16th in the ITA’s doubles poll.
Louderback also expects to see junior Julie Vrabel and sophomore Jane Fennelly take on expanded roles. Vrabel battled shoulder issues that kept her out of the doubles lineup last season, but is expected to be strong in both lineups this season. Meanwhile, Louderback praised Fennelly’s work ethic through the offseason and fall and figures she’s made a significant push to crack the lineup.
Vrabel, Robinson, Gleason and sophomore Mary Closs each contributed 20 or more wins at singles last season.
The Irish not only face a tough road in the ACC, but also a stout nonconference slate as well. That’s not a bug, but a benefit, says Louderback, and a suitable warm-up for the conference season.
Notably, Notre Dame will welcome ranked opponents in No. 16 Michigan (Feb. 1, 2 p.m.), No. 8 Stanford (Feb. 6, 5 p.m.) and No. 33 Ohio State (Feb. 8, 2 p.m.) in consecutive matches. Louderback is particularly keen to host the Cardinal, which rarely travels outside its region.
“That’s a big start for us playing those three schools here,” Louderback said. “Ohio State’s not ranked in the top 25, but they’re a top 25 team. They’ve gotten much better and they’ll be a top 25 team. That’s three top 25s we play right before conference. I feel like those would be like ACC matches for us.”
All but six Irish opponents rank in the top 75. Notre Dame will face seven ACC opponents ranked in the top 30, including No. 6 Virginia (March 1, 11 a.m.), No 4. North Carolina (March 13, 1 p.m.), No. 12 Miami (April 10, 3:30 p.m.) and No. 2 Duke (April 19, noon) at home. Having those matches spread out toward the end of the season, however, should provide the Irish some breathing room after facing most of the conference’s top teams to start last season.
“For this group, we want to be prepared to do well at the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament,” Louderback said. “We had not been to the final 16 for a couple of years and we made it last year and our returning kids really enjoyed it. They saw what being in the final 16 is. The atmosphere there is very good. Every match is tough. Our kids want to get back there and they want to go farther. I think that’s something that the conference can help us prepare for and I think that’s something we can do this year.”
To keep up with all the Irish women’s tennis action, be sure to like the team on Facebook and follow along on Twitter (@NDWomensTennis).
By Joanne Norell, Media Relations Assistant