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Virginia faces two ranked opponents

Close road contests provide added challenge

The No. 16 Virginia women’s tennis team has a busy weekend ahead of itself. After the Cavaliers (1-3, 0-0 ACC) square off against No. 29 Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss. Saturday, they will immediately hit the road again to make an 11 a.m. Sunday morning first serve against No. 39 Memphis.

These matches will mark the team’s first outdoor competition of the season. The Cavaliers are coming off of a win-less showing at the ITA National Team Indoors two weekends ago in Charlottesville. Virginia dropped close contests to No. 6 Southern California, no. 12 Michigan and no. 10 Texas A&M. The only tally in the win column for Virginia this season came in a Feb. 1 win against No. 49 Virginia Commonwealth University.

Despite this early lack of success, coach Mark Guilbeau remains optimistic that this year’s team will be able to build off of the school-record-breaking Cavaliers season last year, in which they notched 20 victories for the first time ever.

“Raising the standard in general is very important,” Guilbeau said. “Especially when you bring in new players, they walk into a high standard and know that standard is what is expected from them.”

Guilbeau has indeed attracted a strong freshman class this season, including singles No. 11 Julia Elbaba, No. 46 Stephanie Nauta and Maci Epstein, who comprises one half of the nation’s fifth-ranked doubles tandem. The Cavaliers remain confident their youthful team will hold up well in competition.

“In 21 years, the best team I’ve ever coached was seven freshman and one junior,” Guilbeau said. “It’s not easy because the first-year players have a lot to learn, but you hope that they can come in and be focused and mature, and have that work ethic that we talk about every time they step onto the court.”

The young players will be a critical part of the line up this season as the team works to build a success comparable to last season’s, starting this weekend as they try to shake off a rocky start. While the team rankings suggest Virginia will thrive this weekend, Ole Miss and Memphis each feature talented rosters and pose a significant threat to the Cavaliers.

Ole Miss (2-3, 0-0 SEC) possesses one of the nation’s top talents in junior Caroline Rohde-Moe, who sits at 27th in the country in singles and no. 39 with her partner, freshman Marija Milutinovic, in doubles. Most of the Rebels’ roster includes upperclassmen athletes with experience at the international level. Sophomore Santa Shumilina from Moscow benefits from an especially decorated international record, as she was ranked 106th in the world and competed in both the Junior U.S. Open and the Junior Wimbledon tournaments prior to joining Ole Miss.

“They’re the type of team that usually has success,” Guilbeau said. “Mississippi looked like a top 16 team when we scheduled them, so their ranking right now really doesn’t mean much.”
Memphis (5-2, 0-0 C-USA) may also present more of a danger than its national record would indicate. With a roster that includes only one freshman, The Tigers have an experienced squad yearning to vault into the national limelight. Senior Courtney Collins boasts the team’s top ranks at no. 61 nationally in singles and, with the aid of fellow senior Kelly Gray, a no. 35 rank in doubles.

Stamina could affect the Virginia-Memphis matchup. The Tigers will have had a full week off after a tight 4-3 victory against Columbia Feb. 17, while the Cavaliers will be playing their second match in as many days after traveling from Mississippi to Tennessee directly following the conclusion of the first matchup. Guilbeau, though, expects his strenuous training regimen and his team’s experience with long-distance travel to ensure fatigue is not a factor in Sunday’s competition.

“We travel extremely well,” Guilbeau said. “We’ve had some 6 a.m. flights and come out playing some of our best tennis the next day.”

This weekend’s matches will set a tone for the rest of the Cavaliers’ season. Contests against Ole Miss and Memphis give the team an ideal opportunity to rebound from a tough indoor showing and show the nation that they can emerge victorious against quality competition on the road.

“We are very good if we all work together and give a great effort,” Guilbeau said.

First serve on Saturday is scheduled for 1 p.m.

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