May 9, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - The 23rd-ranked Tennessee Lady Vol tennis team arrived in Charlottesville, Va., on Wednesday, the opening site of UT's 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
Tennessee, which will open the tournament Friday at 11 a.m. ET against 40th-ranked VCU, was forced to practice indoors at The Boar's Head Sports Club on Wednesday afternoon due to rainy conditions.
The gloomy weather wasn't represented in the team's overall attitude, however.
Expected to play with a full lineup this weekend after an injury-riddled season, Tennessee is all sunshine.
"I'm really excited," freshman Caitlyn Williams said. "This is what the whole season is about. We're just happy to be here and definitely don't want to stop now. We want to continue on and hopefully make it to Athens for the Sweet 16."
The last time Tennessee was in Charlottesville, the Lady Vols won two of three matches during the ITA National Team Indoor Championships, defeating No. 5 Baylor, 4-0, and No. 12 Northwestern, 4-3.
"We have such a good team but we've been struck with injuries," co-head coach Mike Patrick said. "Hopefully, we can compete at our best and show what we're all about."
Although the Lady Vols are healthier heading into the NCAA Tournament, the program's most recognizable face was missing from UT's first practice in Charlottesville.
But it had nothing to do with an injury.
Senior Natalie Pluskota didn't travel with the team Wednesday, as she stayed in Knoxville to partake in the University of Tennessee's graduate ceremonies.
Pluskota, who enters the NCAA Tournament with 103 doubles wins - the eighth-most in UT history - graduated Wednesday with a Bachelor of Science degree in sport management.
"I'm glad it worked out that she had a chance to walk," Patrick said. "That was important to her and we had a chance to make that happen. We'll be sad to see her go, but she still has a couple of weeks of work left in her and I'm sure she's excited about competing."
VCU enters the tournament on an 11-match winning streak, fresh off of capturing the Colonial Athletic Association championship.
The lone all-time meeting between Tennessee and VCU came in the 2002 NCAA Tournament quarterfinals, when the Lady Vols used a 4-3 win to reach their first Final Four.
The Lady Vols have won five consecutive first round contests and 15 of their last 16.
The only common opponent between the two is Virginia, the host of the regional. VCU lost to the Cavaliers, 6-1, in Charlottesville on March 2.
If Tennessee defeats VCU, the Lady Vols will play the winner of Virginia and Fairleigh Dickinson on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET.
The Lady Vols opened their season against Virginia in New York, but fell 4-3 in a contest in which they only played with five players in singles.
All-time, Tennessee is 7-2 against the Cavaliers, while UT has never played FDU.
UT and Virginia have met once in the NCAA Tournament, a 4-1 decision in 2003 to advance to the Round of 16 in Athens, Ga., which is also the site of this year's final rounds.
Virginia is ranked 14th after sporting an 18-7 record to this point. FDU, meanwhile, is 16-7.
VCU's PROJECTED LINEUP
1. Ana Bara (15-15/9-10)
2. Alex Bara (20-10/11-7)
3. Olga Terteac (17-9/13-4)
4. Alena Gerasimova (20-8/11-6)
5. Kalome Kvitashvili (19-5/14-1)
6. Josefin Hjertquist (14-7/7-3)
1. Ana Bara/Alex Bara (19-11/12-8)
2. Olga Terteac/Daria Yakauleva (9-5/6-2)
3. Salome Kvitashvili/Alena Gerasimova (16-2/16-2)
The only Lady Vol to play in all 26 matches this season, junior Kata Szekely is looking forward to helping Tennessee in this year's NCAA Tournament after suffering a sprained ankle in UT's first round match against College of Charleston in 2011.
Ranked for the first time this season in both ITA polls (currently 10th in doubles and 57th in singles), Szekely has enjoyed a strong year for Tennessee.
"She's a consistent performer on and off the court," Patrick said. "She does well in the classroom. She does well in practice. She does well when she competes. She's just a consistent person. As far as being here all year, she's had her injuries earlier in her career. Hopefully, those are out of the way. She's had a great year this year." An All-SEC second team selection for the second consecutive year, Szekely ranks second on the team in both singles (23) and doubles (27) wins.
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, Szekely has won four consecutive singles matches and a season-high 10 straight doubles contests.
"My freshman year I played at the NCAA Tournament," Szekely said. "It was really exciting. It's basically the highlight of the season, so every single time we get to play here, it's really exciting for us."
WILLIAMS READY TO GO
The last time UT played in Charlottesville, freshman Caitlyn Williams played a key role in Tennessee's wins over No. 5 Baylor and No. 12 Northwestern in February.
Since then, the Knoxville native has been forced to completely miss five matches while struggling through injury.
As healthy as she's been since the last time Tennessee visited the state of Virginia according to Patrick, the Lady Vols are hoping she experiences a little déjà vu.
"I definitely feel a lot better," Williams said. "I've been doing a whole lot of rehab the last three weeks to get ready for this time. Just being able to practice, even an hour a day over the last couple weeks, has really boosted my confidence. It's just really helped me and my shoulder feels a lot better right now."