Maharaj received first-team All-SEC honors at the tournament banquet on April 14.
June 24, 2004
Already having established the program as a traditional powerhouse with seven straight NCAA Sweet 16 appearances and 14 top-20 finishes in the last 15 years, Co-Head Tennis Coaches Mike Patrick and Sonia Hahn-Patrick hoped the Lady Vols could continue to build upon that success during the 2003-04 campaign. Maintaining that same level of consistency, however, would be no easy task, as the program had bid farewell to the NCAA's top-ranked player, Vilmarie Castellvi, and four-time All-SEC selection Crystal Cleveland due to graduation.
To make matters even more difficult, a number of Lady Vols had to battle injury throughout the 2003-04 season, including returning All-Americans Tammy Encina and Melissa Schaub. When all was said and done, however, Tennessee valiantly had persevered through all adversity to reach the Sweet 16 once again and post yet another top-20 finish.
Heading into the fall season, Encina was the only Lady Vol featured in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's preseason rankings, debuting at the No. 27 spot. In doubles play, the tandem of Encina and junior Majen Immink opened with a ranking of No. 14.
Tennessee kicked off the season at home with the St. Mary's Fall Classic over Sept. 19-21, at which four Lady Vols took home singles titles in their respective flights. Encina led UT by claiming victory in flight No. 1 with three triumphs over ranked opponents. She was joined in the winners' circle by junior Ashley Robards in flight No. 2, sophomore Sabita Maharaj in flight No. 3 and freshman Blakeley Griffith in flight No. 4.
In their next competition of the fall, the Lady Vols experienced some mixed results at the adidas Collegiate Invitational in Peachtree City, Ga., over Sept. 25-28. Although the Orange and White picked up some solid wins, no Lady Vols were able to move on past the quarterfinals in singles play. In the top singles draw, Encina advanced to the quarterfinals, where she fell to 21st-ranked Julie Rotondi of Florida, while Griffith advanced to the quarterfinals of the second singles draw.
In doubles play at the adidas Invite, Encina and Immink won two matches before falling in the semifinals to Florida's Gordon and Rotondi. The UT duo of Griffith and Maharaj, meanwhile, took home top honors in doubles consolation play with a win over teammates Robards and freshman Victoria Jones in the championship match.
Next up for Encina and Immink was a trip to Pacific Palisades, Calif., for the ITA All-American Championships over Oct. 9-12, where the pair would compete in doubles and Encina would also play in the singles draw. Although the outing was disappointing for the Lady Vol tandem, as they fell in the first round, Encina shined in singles play. After cruising by No. 63 Alicia Salas of Notre Dame in the first round, Encina downed sixth-ranked Alice Barnes of Stanford in straight sets the following day. Although Encina's impressive run came to an end against No. 1 Agata Cioroch of Georgia in the quarterfinals, the senior had to feel that she was playing at a high level for such an early point in the season.
Three Lady Vols were in action at the next event of the fall, as Immink, Maharaj and Robards all headed to Winston-Salem, N.C., for the Omni Hotel Southeast Regional Championships over Oct. 24-26. Maharaj fared the best out of the trio, as she won two matches to advance to the round of 16, while Immink and Robards fell in the round of 32.
To wrap up the fall, Encina headed to the ITA Indoor Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich., while the rest of the squad traveled back to Peachtree City for the SEC Coaches Fall Classic over Nov. 7-9. Encina, after defeating Georgia's Shadisha Robinson in the first round, fell to ninth-ranked Amanda Johnson in the round of 16. Down in Peachtree City, meanwhile, Griffith continued the strong start to her collegiate career by reaching the final of the "B" singles draw, while Immink took home the consolation bracket title. In doubles play, Griffith and junior Breanna Kray reached the consolation final before falling to the Auburn pair of Sauerborn and Suitor.
After a productive fall season, the Lady Vols entered the spring with a team ranking of No. 10 and three top-100 singles players. Encina, who defeated a total of five ranked opponents in the fall, climbed to the No. 13 spot in January's preseason rankings. Maharaj, meanwhile, entered the spring ranked 86th, just ahead of Robards at 96th. In doubles, Encina and Immink occupied the No. 49 spot.
Following the two-and-a-half-month break from competition, however, Tennessee was edged out by 75th-ranked Indiana, 4-3, in its first dual match of the year on Jan. 24 in Bloomington, Ind. Unfortunately, narrow defeats would be a theme of the Lady Vols' season, as nine of the team's 14 losses came by scores of 4-3. To their credit, though, the Orange were able to bounce back the following day with a 4-3 victory over 48th-ranked Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio.
The Lady Vols next returned to Knoxville for their first home competition of the year, which they kicked off in winning fashion. UT first defeated No. 42 Purdue by a score of 6-1 on Jan. 30, before turning around and downing No. 24 Illinois, 5-2, two days later.
With a three-match win streak, Tennessee headed to Madison, Wis., to face some stiff competition at the ITA National Team Indoor Championships over Feb. 5-7. In the first round of the tournament, UT fell to the seventh-ranked Washington Huskies by a score of 6-1. The following day, Tennessee again met up with some tough competition, this time falling by a 4-3 count to No. 14 William and Mary. The Lady Vols, however, would not leave Madison winless, as they notched a 4-2 victory over 64th-ranked Wisconsin to close out the tournament.
At this point in the season, the Lady Vols owned a respectable 4-3 record after having faced seven ranked opponents. The team's No. 1 singles player, Encina, was battling injury, however, and would be forced to sit out the next three matches. Additionally, Schaub, who had been off the court nearly the entire fall because of injury, was still unable to return to UT's singles lineup.
With Encina out of action, Maharaj did an admirable job filling in at the No. 1 position, as she defeated 15th-ranked Karin Coetzee of Wake Forest on Feb. 14. That win, unfortunately, was not enough to carry Tennessee to victory, as the 58th-ranked Demon Deacons won the match in Winston-Salem, N.C., by a margin of 4-3. UT returned to Knoxville the next day to face No. 9 North Carolina, and the Orange and White once again suffered a 4-3 defeat. In their final clash prior to the start of SEC play, the Lady Vols headed to Ann Arbor, Mich., on Feb. 21, where they fell to the 25th-ranked Wolverines, not surprisingly, by a count of 4-3.
After three consecutive one-point losses, the Lady Vols entered conference play with a record of 4-6. Although Encina returned to the court for UT, Robards, who had been playing in the No. 3 singles spot, was now fighting the injury bug and would miss the first two SEC tilts. The injury woes did not slow Tennessee, however, in its first league contest, as the Big Orange cruised by Auburn, 6-1, on Feb. 27 in Knoxville. In their next match, though, the Lady Vols' reduced depth cost the team in a 4-3 loss to No. 53 Alabama on Feb. 29. After the setback, Tennessee fell to No. 36 in the ITA Rankings, its lowest position of the season.
Week two of SEC play yielded positive results at home for the Lady Vols, as they took out 68th-ranked Arkansas by a count of 7-0 on March 5 and 56th-rated LSU by a score of 6-1 on March 7. With a conference record of 3-1 and overall mark of 7-7, the Orange and White were finding that even with frequent lineup changes due to injury, they still had the potential to achieve success.
Tennessee next took advantage of a week off from SEC competition during spring break and headed to the Hawaiian Islands. The trip was not for fun and recreation, however, as the Lady Vols had three matches scheduled during their stay. The Big Orange began the week with a 7-0 victory over Hawaii on March 10 in which they swept all the singles and doubles matches. Next, UT faced a much tougher contest as it dropped a 4-0 decision to sixth-ranked Duke on March 12. Tennessee, however, rebounded to close out the trip on a positive note with an impressive 6-1 victory over 18th-ranked Notre Dame on March 13.
Returning to the mainland, the Lady Vols hosted one more non-conference competition before resuming SEC play, as they were narrowly edged out by No. 11 Texas by a count of 4-3 on March 17. Despite the loss, however, Tennessee re-entered league action with a renewed sense of confidence after have played well against two top-20 teams in UND and Texas.
UT, which had risen seven spots to No. 29 in the ITA Rankings, would return to conference play with a pair of victories in its final home matches of the season. On March 19, the Lady Vols slipped past 37th-ranked Ole Miss, 4-3, before steamrolling Mississippi State by a count of 6-1 on March 21. The two wins, which came despite the fact that Robards was again sidelined because of injury, improved the Orange and White's record to 5-1 in SEC matches and 11-9 overall.
Tennessee next won its third consecutive match with a 4-3 triumph over No. 31 South Carolina on March 26 in Columbia, S.C. Competition would get more intense in their next match, though, as the Lady Vols headed south to Gainesville, Fla., for a clash with defending national champion Florida on March 28. In that contest, the second-ranked Gators, who entered the match undefeated, claimed a 6-1 victory to hand UT its second SEC loss of the year.
The stretch of strong challengers continued for the Big Orange on April 2, as they visited Nashville for a battle with the fifth-ranked Vanderbilt Commodores, who claimed victory by a score of 5-2. Two days later, Tennessee was able to regain its winning ways in Lexington, Ky., with a 4-3 triumph over No. 16 UK. The victory helped propel the Lady Vols back into the top-25 rankings, as they rose to the No. 24 spot.
In their final regular-season match, the Orange provided a strong challenge to fifth-ranked Georgia but fell by a count of 4-3 in Athens, Ga., on April 10. Although they did not win the match, the Lady Vols had several items about which to feel positive. Encina, who had continued to battle injury, looked to be returning to form as she defeated No. 6 Agata Cioroch, 6-2, 6-2, while Maharaj downed No. 23 Shadisha Robinson in three sets. Additionally, the match's close outcome helped give UT the confidence that it still could compete with the nation's top teams.
Having amassed a 7-4 mark in league play, Tennessee earned a first-round bye for the SEC Championships in Nashville and would enter the tourney as the No. 4 seed. Prior to the event, Maharaj received first-team All-SEC honors at the tournament banquet on April 14. During the regular season, the Gainesville, Fla., native compiled a flawless 8-0 mark in league play at the No. 2 singles position. The All-SEC accolade was the second such award for Maharaj, who also earned first-team honors the previous season in doubles with partner Crystal Cleveland.
As UT enjoyed a first-round bye during the initial day of the SEC Championships, the team discovered its first opponent would be fifth-seeded LSU, which defeated 12th-seeded Arkansas, 4-0. Having lost to Tennessee earlier in the season, the 19th-ranked Bayou Bengals exacted some revenge by defeating the Lady Vols, 4-3, in a grueling, five-hour match on April 16. In the losing effort, Encina again looked to be returning to form as she defeated her second consecutive ranked opponent with a straight-set victory over No. 50 Jessica Ferguson.
With their record now even at 13-13, the Orange had to return home with their postseason fate in the hands of the NCAA selection committee. Although there was little doubt that they would make the NCAA Tournament, the Lady Vols were unsure as to where they would have to travel for regional play. With nearly a month off from competition following the SEC Championships, though, Tennessee was provided with some much-needed time during which to rest and heal some of its injuries.
When the NCAA bracket was announced on May 5, the Lady Vols discovered they would be heading to Chapel Hill, N.C., where they would face 50th-ranked Wisconsin in the first round. The bracket also set up a potential second-round showdown against 15th-ranked North Carolina, which played No. 75 Winthrop in round one.
Tennessee's second clash of the season against Wisconsin would not be nearly as easy as the first, which UT won by a score of 4-2. After losing the doubles point to the Badgers, the Lady Vols bounced back to claim victory, 4-3, with four wins in singles play. The match, however, was not decided until the final singles contest, in which Griffith defeated UW's Lindsay Martin, 7-2, in a third-set tiebreak to seal the victory. Later in the day, North Carolina cruised by Winthrop, 4-0, to set up the UT-UNC rematch.
The Lady Vols entered their match on May 15 with confidence, knowing that their loss to Carolina earlier in the season had come by the narrowest of margins. Hoping to reverse their fate this time around, the Orange got off to a quick start by claiming the doubles point, thanks in part to an 8-6 victory by Encina and Immink over 19th-ranked Cline and Mojzis at the No. 1 position. The Tar Heels would not go down easily, though, as the contest again came down to the final singles match. Robards proved to be the hero of the day for UT, as she downed Caitlin Collins in three sets at No. 3 singles to secure the Lady Vols' eighth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16.
As if it were destiny, Tennessee now would face its intrastate rival Vanderbilt in the round of 16 for the third consecutive year. In 2002, UT had defeated the Commodores en route to advancing to the Final Four, while VU got some revenge by claiming victory in the 2003 matchup. The Lady Vols knew winning the rubber match this season would be a difficult task against the third-ranked 'Dores.
Looking to rise to the challenge that awaited them, the Orange jumped out to an early lead by claiming the doubles point. Kray and Robards defeated the 39th-ranked tandem of Audra Falk and Annie Menees, while Encina and Immink downed the second-ranked pair of Kelly Schmandt and Aleke Tsoubanos. The match marked just the fifth defeat of the season for Schmandt and Tsoubanos, who entered the contest with a record of 34-5. Unfortunately for the Lady Vols, they would not score again on the day as Vandy, which would advance to the national title match before falling to top-ranked Stanford, claimed a 4-1 decision.
When looking back at the season, however, the Lady Vols should feel positive about their accomplishments. They overcame not only the graduation of two extremely talented players but also a myriad of injuries en route to advancing to their eighth consecutive Sweet 16. In addition, its performance in the NCAA Tournament was enough to propel Tennessee back to No. 19 in the ITA Rankings, giving the program its 15th top-20 finish in the last 16 seasons.
The Lady Vols should also be enthusiastic about the future, as they will return a number of their top players. Leading the contingent of upperclassmen will be two-time All-SEC honoree Maharaj along with All-American Schaub. As sophomores, meanwhile, Griffith and Jones should be able to build upon the success from their rookie season, when they compiled singles records of 31-13 and 25-11, respectively. This returning talent, along with the infusion of some skilled newcomers, will have the opportunity to further establish UT among the ranks of the nation's elite.