Rice vs. Charlotte: 4-0
Rice vs. FIU: 4-1
Rice vs. Marshall: 4-1
Somehow managing to escape the poor weather, the Rice University women’s tennis team won their third consecutive Conference USA title this weekend.
The No. 30 Owls finished their first year at the new George R. Brown Tennis Center with a conference championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. The Owls, seeded first, shut out the University of North Carolina, Charlotte 4-0 in their first match on Friday. The next day, they proceeded to put down Florida International University 4-1. Sunday morning, the Owls outplayed no. 2 seed Marshall 4-1 in the conference final.
In their first match on Friday, the Owls showed their dominance quickly by blanking the Charlotte 49ers. After winning the doubles point, the Owls got their second point of the day from senior Natalie Beazant when her opponent, Victoria Pahlett, retired early due to injury.
The Owls completed the shutout with singles victories from sophomore Katherine Ip and freshman Savannah Durkin, who won their singles matches while only dropping a combined three sets. The Owls continued the momentum on Saturday against Florida International, beginning with a doubles performance that resulted in 8-1 and 8-2 wins. Despite Beazant dropping a match on court one, the Owls followed up with straight set wins from Durkin and junior Solomiya Zinko. Then, for the second straight year, Ip delivered the clinching point to send the Owls to the conference final.
On Sunday, the Owls faced No. 60 Marshall in the conference finals. After once again winning the doubles point, Durkin added the second point of the day with a straight set victory over freshman Mairja Bojicevic, 6-3, 6-2. This completed her 10th straight victory, including an undefeated conference tournament. Marshall then cut into the Owls lead with a 6-1, 6-2 win over senior Liat Zimmerman. After fighting her way back in a tough first set, Beazant got the win against sophomore Derya Turhan. Finally, Zinko finished her match with a 7-5, 6-0 win that gave the Owls a 4-1 win and their fourth-ever conference championship.
The final day was marked by singles matches featuring constant lead changes. Head Coach Elizabeth Schmidt said momentum shifts in the first sets were a primary reason for the win.
“There were quite a few momentum shifts in those singles for sure,” Schmidt said. “[Beazant] won her first set and Lindsey [Hodge] came back and won her first set at the same time that Katherine [Ip] came back in her second. We started out fast in a couple courts but so did they. I think the huge thing was winning close first sets. That was when momentum shifted, but even when momentum shifts, you have to do a good job capitalizing on it.”
Beazant, ranked No. 21 in the country in singles play and playing her final home match, said she was ecstatic with the team’s conference championship to cap off an impressive weekend of play.
“It’s been a long weekend with some really tough matches in there,” Beazant said. “We had played Marshall before and I am really excited that we have been able to get the third [championship] in a row.”
This year’s conference championships allowed the Owls to celebrate their victory at home for the first time. Schmidt praised the fans who came out to support, and said it offered a great advantage to the Owls.
“It was really awesome to be able to play in front of our home crowd,” Schmidt said. “The support was fabulous and really helped us. It gave us an energy and it’s fun to be able to share this with all the people who have been a part of our program over the years. They pushed us through today and I am just really happy to share this with the Rice family right here on the Rice campus.”
Schmidt said she points to this third straight conference title as a standard of excellence that the team is setting as they continue to set higher expectations every year.
“There are a lot of different people that have gone into these three championships,” Schmidt said. “Each team has a unique personality and every championship is a little different but winning breeds winning. The more you can win, the more people feel confident and the expectations get higher.”
As the team now looks to wait a week before finding out who their next opponent in the NCAA tournament is, Schmidt said her team needs to enjoy the moment before moving on to prepare for the next challenge they will face from tough national competition.
“First, we’re going to enjoy this championship that they worked really hard for,” Schmidt said. “We need to get physically and mentally rested and then we’ll be back on the practice court.”
Even though both Beazant and Schmidt stressed the importance of taking the NCAA tournament slowly and one match at a time, the team has an unofficial goal — to have the seniors miss their graduation. The round of 16 in the NCAA tournament will be held in Waco, Texas on the same day as Rice’s commencement on May 16.
“We want to take it match my match,” Beazant said. “We want to make it to Waco so hopefully we’ll be there during graduation, and not at graduation.”