February 27, 2009

Expectations on the rise for young Maroons

For most teams, the winter season is teetering to a close. But for women’s tennis the spotlight is brighter than ever, as observers from the UAA and NCAA in general turn to the nationally ranked team to see what it can do. After entering the season ranked 15th in the country, the Maroons have lived up to expectations, winning their last three matches, including the only two D-III matches of the season so far. “Our program has never been ranked inside the top 10,” assistant coach Jeff White said. “But when the new rankings come out, I fully expect our team to be ranked in the top eight nationally, and maybe even in the top five.”Although the Maroons have benefited from depth for the past few seasons, only this year has the entire roster gelled to create a potential championship squad. Setting a powerful example, first-year Jennifer Kung has laid claim to the number-one spot in the Central region. Her matches at the fall ITA Small College Championship pitted her against the nation’s top players, including the elite trio of Emory’s Lorne McManigle, Tufts’ Julia Browne, and Carnegie’s Laura Chen, each of whom was ranked first or second in her respective region. None were able to topple Kung, however, as the rookie Maroon secured both the tournament gold and the Central region crown. By no means has the team been a one-person act. Reinforcing the roster alongside Kung are first-years Kendra Higgins, ranked seventh in the region, and Carmen VacaGuzman, ranked ninth, as well as veteran fourth-year Vindya Dayananda, who sits at the 13th spot. Both Higgins and VacaGuzman have had impressive first seasons, picking up a consistent winning record from September until the present. Dayananda, a former UAA finalist and three-time All-American, has also been a source of invaluable experience at the fifth singles spot. “One of the greatest aspects of this team is their depth,” White said. “They genuinely enjoy being around each other and are some of the most talented players. When you have those things, success is easy.”In the upcoming weeks, the team will be tested against the toughest teams in the nation. Over the break, while students head home to relax and unwind, Chicago will enter competition with 12th-ranked DePauw, 13th-ranked Middlebury, sixth-ranked University of Mary Washington, and fifth-ranked Emory. A win against Emory will virtually guarantee a top UAA seed in the championships, while a loss will put this valuable seed up in the air. No strangers to pressure, the team has a good chance of stepping it up. Having already clobbered third-ranked Denison in mid-February, the Maroons are working toward another slew of upsets on the way to the UAA gold. “We have a very demanding schedule. This will help us out mentally knowing that we can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the country, as well as physically when you have to play back-to-back-to-back days,” White said. A UAA title is not the only possibility in Chicago’s cards. Hopes have long been turned to wider, national glory. Depending on how the matches turn out in the coming weeks, the team could be looking at one of several different scenarios. A strong UAA showing will automatically qualify many players for nationals, but that might be accomplished on record alone. Either way, with the group at the geographical middle of the Central region, their bracket could bend East or West. While the West offers slightly easier competition, the East consists of the perennially tough Denison and DePauw.First, the team will defend the courts against Calvin today, in Chicago’s last home match of the season.After the break, the Maroons will have a much better idea of their postseason prospects, and for White, the team’s unity could push the South Siders into the title picture.“During my time in college, my team advanced to nationals all four years. One of the biggest reasons why we had so much success was we were a good team. We supported each other and knew that we could count on everyone to do their job—I get the same feeling about our women’s team,” White said.