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Marshall ousts women's tennis in C-USA semifinals

By Rhodes Coffey     5/15/08 7:00pm

In the realm of sports, effort and talent do not always equate to success and victory, particularly in women's tennis. In this day and age, parity amongst conference rivals leads to any team having a chance of triumphing on any given day. After six hours of grueling play against No. 50 Marshall University, the Owls eventually succumbed in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament, ending their strong season on a sour note.After closing its season with 10 wins in a row, including a 5-3 shellacking of No. 69 California State University-Northridge, Rice entered the tournament with a first-round bye and began actual play in the second round against the University of Houston. Rice was seeded third in the tournament behind the University of Tulsa and Marshall, while UH came in only at No. 6. Though unranked, the Cougars gave the team a run for its money. The match lasted for over five hours, but the Owls nonetheless pulled away in a 4-3 thrilling comeback victory.

Leading the way into postseason play, senior Tiffany Lee and sophomore Rebecca Lin charged to the forefront in winning their doubles match 8-1. The Cougars stormed back, however, and knocked off sophomore Julie Chao and senior Dominique Karas in a fierce tiebreaker to win 8-7 (7-3). Although they were coming off a successful regular season, junior Emily Braid and freshman Varsha Shiva-Shankar could not quite find their way on the first day of play. Houston's Leila Salek and Vicky Thompson dismantled the Owl tandem 8-5 to end their 10-match winning streak and give the lower-seeded Cougars an early 1-0 lead.

The Owls came out of the break needing a strong showing in singles, which they received from sophomore standout Julie Chao. Facing forward, Chao hammered her opponent with a 6-3, 6-0 win.

The topsy-turvy contest continued at No. 2, where Salek triumphed over Karas with a 6-3, 6-1 victory before Lee evened the dual match at 2-2 with a 6-2, 6-3 final.

Despite multiple momentum shifts, UH took the lead once again when Lynley Wasson defeated Lin 6-2, 6-1, putting Rice up against the wall.

Fortunately, the Owls had a pair of aces up their sleeves. With remarkable winners and a no-mercy playing style, Shiva-Shankar claimed a victory in three sets 6-2, 3-6, 6-1. With the score knotted at three apiece, Braid fought off leg cramps and fatigue to seal the win. In the final match, she won 1-6, 6-4, 6-4 and catapulted Rice into the semifinals, allowing the Owls to escape an embarrassing first-round defeat.

Shiva-Shankar said her resolve came from the added atmosphere of the conference tournament.

"Everything was different for conference because up until that point, no match mattered that much," Shiva-Shankar said. "Everyone wanted to win, and we all knew how important it was to execute well in that situation."

With a stacked lineup and national ranking, Marshall posed more of a threat to Rice than the Cougars. But neither team could have expected the match to last six hours and be such an epic exchange of blows.

Rice started off the day with hard-fought doubles action as Braid and Shiva-Shankar knocked off Thaddea Lock and Jessica Keener at No. 3. Lin and Lee followed suit by defeating Jeanne Schwartz and Isabell Raich 8-3 to secure the doubles point for Rice.

Making quick work of Schwartz, Karas scored a 6-3, 6-3 victory to extend Rice's lead. However, the Thundering Herd would not be deterred, and they came roaring back. In straight sets, 53rd-ranked Kellie Schmitt beat Chao 6-0, 6-2, and Lock defeated senior Christine Dao 6-4, 6-1 to even things up. Dao, herself previously sidelined with injuries, filled in for Braid on the second day because of Braid's ailments.

Pushing the Herd ahead 3-2, Raich defeated Lin 2-6, 6-1, 6-2 in the No. 4 slot. Hours after the start of the match, Shiva-Shankar continued an intense struggle with Jessica Keener at No. 6. After losing the first set handily, Shiva-Shankar surged back in the second frame and pushed the final set to a tie-breaker. Down a triple match point, she smoked three consecutive winners in a thrilling victory.

With the match all even at 3-3, all eyes turned to the No. 3 singles match. Lee and Karolina Soor fought back and forth in three sets. Though quick out of the gate, Lee was hampered with leg cramps because of the heat and came up just short, losing 6-4, 4-6, 3-6.

The heartbreaking loss was clearly most disappointing for the seniors on the team. Because of the setup of women's collegiate tennis, Rice would have had to win conference to guarantee itself a spot in the NCAA Championships even though they were ranked in the top 64. Rice finished the season with a 17-5 record, its best since 1983.

"When you commit with your heart and soul to a goal like the conference championship, it is painful to come up short," head coach Roger White said. "They played their hearts out and truly left it all out on the courts that day. Coming away, they felt good leaving it all out there. With one swing of a point, we could have picked up the victory."

Upon the close of the season, awards were distributed by Conference USA officials. Chao and Karas both earned All-C-USA First-Team Singles and Third-Team doubles recognition. Chao completed the season with an overall 22-10 record in singles, which included many pivotal decisions for Rice. Karas concluded the season with a 23-11 record in singles. Chao and Karas were just as good when they combined their forces - the duo tallied a 13-7 doubles record.

"It was a great growth year for everybody," White said. "In a conference that had never been this strong nor this close in competition, there is no doubt that Chao and Karas wholeheartedly deserved these honors.

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