|"COMPLETING THE CIRCUIT"|
In 1989, the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteer tennis team played in its first NCAA Tournament. The team lost in the first round. In 1990, it returned and received a bye in the first round but promptly fell in the second. In 1991, the Orange and White once again graced the court at the NCAA Championships, only to fall in the first round. This pattern continued in 1992, 1995, and 1997 through 2001.
In women's tennis, a regional is held before the NCAA Championships with 16 teams advancing to the "Big Dance." Tennessee is one of only seven teams to consistently advance to the Round of 16. The Lady Vols join Florida, Stanford, California, Georgia, Arizona State and Duke in achieving that feat. While confident in the program's legacy, this team is not content with just making to main event - they want to take center stage.
A circuit can be defined as a course or journey, or the path of an electrical current. Both are accurate definitions for the promise of the 2001-02 Lady Vol tennis season. Each player brings her own light, energy and radiance to the court, making the Tennessee women's tennis team truly electric. Burned in the returnees' consciousness are the luminous memories of a year where the team eclipsed most of its goals for the season and watched as Patrick and Hahn-Patrick were dubbed Southeastern Conference, Southeast Region and eventually National Co-Coaches of the Year as they navigated the squad of overachievers from a preseason ranking of No. 16 to as high as No. 2 before settling at a No. 6 final rating. But like before, the 2001 circuit was cut short with an early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
In every previous journey, the Lady Vols went so far before a link came up missing in their path. Their circuit was incomplete. Seniors Alison Ojeda and Agnes Wiski were on board the last three expeditions that fell short. They, along with the rest of the Lady Vols, will work on "Completing The Circuit" in 2002.
In 2002, Tennessee returns its entire starting lineup from a squad that upended five top-10 teams en route to a 25-4 overall record and a final Intercollegiate Tennis Association ranking of No. 6. Additionally, the team has grown in size with the addition of five freshmen. The combination of depth and experience will give co-head coaches Mike Patrick and Sonia Hahn-Patrick room to experiment with their alignment of players.
With all of the experience comes new expectations. Tennessee will not shock anyone this year because it is expected to be highly ranked throughout the campaign. The returnees come back hoping to fulfill their dreams of winning an SEC championship and enjoying success at the NCAA Tournament.
"I want the team to improve on last year's season," Patrick said. "I would like us to try to finish a little stronger than we did in the NCAA Tournament. More than anything, I want us to play up to our potential."
The Lady Vol lineup could have many different looks, as the top three spots could be occupied by any of three players. Ojeda is a shoe-in to return to the top spot, but senior Kim Gates and junior Vilmarie Castellvi will be right behind her keeping the pressure on. Ojeda finished the 2001 season with a 27-15 record, going 17-11 in dual play. The San Antonio, Texas, native earned a preseason ranking of No. 16 and has already proven herself in fall tournament play by advancing to the semifinals of the Omni Hotels Southeast Region Championships in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"Coming into her senior year, Ojeda has done everything we could possible ask of her," said Patrick. "She is the ultimate team player. She is starting to reap the successes of hard work."
Castellvi, too, has shown her improvement in fall tournament competition. The junior already has four wins over players ranked higher than her No. 44 rating, and she advanced to the quarterfinals of the Southeast Championships. Poised to shake up the top of Tennessee's lineup, Castellvi has also improved her doubles play and found a consistent partner in Wiski.
Gates could be referred to as the missing link last season, as the team improved leaps and bounds upon her arrival from the University of Texas. However, Patrick says she was just part of the equation for the Lady Vols in 2001. This year, the senior will have to work on her consistency and focus since she has the potential to challenge Ojeda for the top spot. However, if she does not stay on her game, teammate Castellvi could bump her down to No. 3.
"I think we have three players who are capable of playing the No. 1 spot for most schools around the country in Alison, Kim and Vilmarie," Patrick said. "How they complete and how healthy they are will determine our lineup."
Wiski is a lock at No. 4 and her experience makes a solid game even stronger. The No. 81 ranked senior gives UT quality play lower in the lineup. Wiski worked on developing her doubles game over the summer and has found a viable partner in Castellvi. The pair should provide the Lady Vols a solid No. 2 doubles tandem and is capable of competing at the No. 1 slot as well.
For the second consecutive year, the No. 5 slot will most likely belong to junior Crystal Cleveland. The team's Most Valuable Player in 2001, she played to a 20-4 dual record on her way to first-team All-SEC stature. The Delray Beach, Fla., native will also play at No. 1 doubles with Ojeda. The pair was ranked No. 5 in the preseason poll and advanced to the semifinals of the Omni Hotels Southeast Region Championships. The challenge for this duo will be playing up at No. 1 after going 20-1 at No. 2 last season.
"Agnes is a real solid No. 4 player. She tests the top competitors every time she goes out. At No. 5, Crystal is as good as the rest of them but is limited physically with how much she can work," Patrick said.
Sophomore Brooke Cordell will have to fight off the newcomers' push for the No. 6 position as freshmen Majen Immink, Ashley Robards and Breanna Kray could all fill that role. Cordell, a walk-on in 2001, was a welcome surprise for the Lady Vols, as the Soddy Daisy, Tenn., native amassed a 15-9 dual record, playing as high as No. 5 early in the season. Cordell makes up for whatever her game lacks with hard work, dedication and spirit, arguably the most inspirational player to her teammates.
Immink joins Tennessee and brings a wealth of international experience. She played for Great Britain on the under-14 Europa Cup team and was a singles semifinalist at the International Tennis Federation's tournaments in Dublin and Cork. The Kent, U.K., native came on strong toward the end of the Lady Vol fall tournament season, advancing to the round of 16 at the Southeast Championships. The promising youngster may push the returnees for positions higher in the lineup.
A Henderson, Ky., native, Robards is coming off Tri-State Player of the Year honors as a prep. The 5-6 freshman also earned all-state honors from 1997-2000. A steady competitor in the fall, Patrick expects her to continue to develop for the dual season, where she could earn playing time at the No. 5 or 6 slots.
Although Kray experienced some growing pains in the fall, she is expected to vie for that final singles position. A Surrey, B.C., native, the 5-3 freshman also has high level experience in the junior circuits. Kray has been rated in Canada's top 10 in the under-14, under-16 and under-18 divisions.
"At No. 6, we are in for a dogfight. The freshmen will challenge Brooke for her spot, and she will have to work hard to keep it," Patrick said.
Hahn-Patrick and her husband also added two walk-ons in the fall. Freshmen Erin Cohn and Claudia Farace add depth and enthusiasm to an already packed squad. A Richardson, Texas, native, Cohn has a team spirit that rival's Ojeda's fervor. Farace has a little more tennis experience than Cohn but lacks the big-time match experience that the rest of the squad has. Both players have the potential to be contributors in the future if they continue their commitment to improving their games.
A critical part in the Lady Vol lineup will be the doubles play. Last season, the ITA and NCAA adopted a new scoring format where teams play the best out of seven. Six points are awarded for the singles contests with one coming from the doubles portion of the match. Three doubles tilts are played first, with the team that wins two out of those three matches coming away with the point.
In 2001, two out of the Lady Vols' four losses were decided by a one-point margin when the team had faltered in doubles play. Tennessee was 20-0 winning the doubles point and picked up five other wins by overcoming the 1-0 deficit after doubles play.
"We were a little short on depth last year - where we had two solid teams but were weak at the other spot," Patrick said. "This year, we should be solid at all three."
Ojeda and Cleveland will lead the way for UT at the No. 1 slot. The pair earned an ITA rating of fifth after going 20-1 at the No. 2 position last season. The co-head coaches have found a solid No. 2 pair with Castellvi and Wiski, who have both earned All-SEC honors with other partners and as singles performers. The lone equation to be solved is who will play in the final combination. In the fall, Gates and Cordell have played together as has as the duo of Immink and Kray. Patrick, however, said that only time will tell which combination will get the starting nod. With two highly viable pairs and unlimited potential at the final slot, the order and rank of those pairs may be tested early as the co-coaches search for a winning combination.
"I think we have found two good teams this fall," Patrick said. "Crystal and Alison are a carry over from last year, and then Vilmarie and Agnes we found this fall. Our job right now is to find a No. 3 team that will provide the same kind of competitiveness. Among the rest of the team I think we'll be able to do that."
The Lady Vols will take their experienced lineup into battle starting on Jan. 25, when they play host to Purdue. A match against Illinois on the 27th closes out the competition for Jan. and launches UT into a packed agenda of contests. The 2002 circuit includes matches against four top-10 teams from last year and eight of 2001's Top 25.
"I think everyone on our team has improved since last year, and they know what we have to do to get the job done," Patrick said. "The teams are better around us, but I think we are much improved also. Our returnees have great match experience and know how competitive they have to be and how much work it will take to reach another level."
After early tests on the road at the National Team Indoor Championships (Feb. 7-10), at Michigan (Feb. 14) and Notre Dame (Feb. 16), the Lady Vols will return to the friendly confines of the Goodfriend Tennis Center to take on Brigham Young University on Feb. 23 and Atlantic Coast power North Carolina the following day.
The outset of March launches UT's Southeastern Conference season at Kentucky on March 1. A trip to Vanderbilt on March 3 will continue to push Hahn-Patrick and Patrick's squad. A stretch of five straight home matches is up next on the slate before Tennessee plays the entire month of April on the road.
"We have a tough schedule every year," Patrick said. "The one thing that does stand out is that we play all of our Eastern Division teams on the road. Those are some of the best teams in the country, and we are looking forward to the challenge. We have an experienced team and should be able to handle it."
Hoping to repeat last season's berth into the championship match of the SEC Tournament, the 2002 Lady Vols will head to Columbia, S.C., for the April 18-21 event. After a three-week break, Tennessee hopes to return to action in the NCAA Tournament on May 11 with regional action at various campus sites around the country. The NCAA Team Championships will be comprised of the 16 teams that survive regional play and will be played in Palo Alto, Calif.
In a way, a trip to Palo Alto in May would bring the six returnees back to where their circuit began. The six will be on the hallowed ground where so many Tennessee teams have had their current interrupted before, and it will be up to them to complete the circuit with a victory at the NCAA Team Championships.