Women's tennis makes history, clinches first Sweet 16 birth
It has been a thrilling season for the Rice Women's Tennis Team. The Conference-USA season began at Jake Hess Stadium at Rice on Jan. 20, following a number of invitationals that placed Rice at 71 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings.
The Owls beat Lamar University 7-0, the first of many wins to come this season. Following that, the team went undefeated against Louisiana-Lafayette University, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, McNeese State University, Louisiana State University and Florida International University.
Coming almost a month after the win against Lamar, the Owls game at the Lady Raider Shootout in Lubbock, Texas, on Feb. 12 against Texas Tech University was their first loss, 4-2, of the season. The team then struggled against the University of Alabama, losing 6-1. A few days later, on Feb. 24 in College Station, Texas, the Owls played Texas A&M University and lost 5-2. Head Coach Elizabeth Schmidt referred to this as one of the most challenging segments of the season.
"I think one of our greatest challenges came when we lost three matches in a row and we came home to face a highly ranked Oklahoma team," Schmidt said. "It was a big moment in our season and our team responded like champs. This group plays with a lot of heart and passion and I really feel like that is a huge reason for our success this season."
The game against the University of Oklahoma was certainly a standout performance for Rice, which had been ranked 68th in ITA and which won 6-2 against its 35th ranked opponent. Doubles was dominated by Rice's 47th ranked freshman Natalie Beazant and sophomore Dominique Harmath. Sophomore Katie Gater and Ana Guzman (Wiess '12) made valiant attempts in both doubles and singles competition, as did sophomores Kimberly Anicete and Stephanie Nguyen.
Despite the occasional loss after this game, the team continued to improve by leaps and bounds. It was not long before the C-USA Championships arrived, and the team swept University of Central Florida 4-0. Next, they played Tulane University, who they won against 4-2. The Owls' final game, against 26th ranked Tulsa University, was an intensely played match that resulted in a 4-2 loss. At 40th in ITA rankings, the Owls season was given an extension when they qualified on a May 1 bid to continue on to the NCAA rounds.
Of all the games the Owls played this season, when asking Schmidt what the most memorable was, the answer drew no hesitation.
"This past weekend is the most memorable moment so far of the season," Schmidt said. "It was neat to see our players fight so hard, show so much mental toughness, and really come together to earn these two victories. It was really special and a testament to all of their hard work this year."
Schmidt refers to the wins against Illinois University, 4-3, and Ole Miss University, 4-2. These closely played games qualified Rice to continue on to the elite Sweet 16 rounds. Incredibly excited about the wins, Schmidt described her feelings.
"I told the team after the match that I've been fortunate to have some pretty special experiences in my tennis career; however, this past weekend has been, by far, the most memorable of them all." Schmidt said. "I see every day how hard each of them work and all they do to to be the best that they can be. It is an awesome feeling to see a group of people that I care so much about be able to earn and celebrate a trip to the Sweet 16."
Leaving today at 7:45 a.m. for Athens, Ga., Rice will be competing on Thursday at 9 a.m. against the first ranked University of California, Los Angeles. Schmidt describes how the team feels going into the match.
"Obviously, UCLA has had a great season and have earned their ranking," Schmidt said. "However, that being said, we are a very confident team right now and are looking forward to a great match against the Bruins. It is also extra special for me since I played at UCLA and Stella [UCLA's head coach] has been a great friend and mentor to me the past 15 years."
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