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Freshman trio brings success for women's tennis

Elbaba, Nauta, Epstein make immediate impact on Grounds, lead No. 13 Cavaliers

In a year in which the No. 13 Virginia women’s tennis team broke school records, toppled the nation’s top-ranked team and still threatens to make a deep run in the postseason, there were three unlikely faces it could also turn to — Julia Elbaba, Stephanie Nauta and Maci Epstein. That trio of freshmen routinely played in the top spots for the Cavaliers, leading them to places that surpassed everyone’s expectations — except their own.

Virginia (16-8, 9-2 ACC) knew it had struck gold with this year’s recruiting class, as all three newcomers were highly touted junior prospects. Elbaba lived up to the hype immediately in the fall when she became the first Cavalier ever to reach the quarterfinals of a major tournament at the ITA All-American tournament. She eventually reached the championship match but narrowly lost in a three set thriller.

Nauta wasted no time making some noise of her own. She defeated two top-50 opponents en route to a singles tournament victory at the Georgia Bulldog Classic in mid-October and followed this impressive performance up by placing second in doubles with junior teammate Li Xi at the ITA Intercollegiate Indoor Tournament — the best doubles performance at a major college event in Virginia history.

Meanwhile, Epstein established herself as the number one doubles player for Virginia. Epstein was paired with different partners throughout the fall, but found consistent success — her tandems placed second in the consolation draw of the ITA Indoors and second at the ITA Atlantic Regional Tournament.

“They had offers from everywhere in the country,” coach Mark Guilbeau said. “What made everyone in the program know that we really, really wanted these three was because they were talking about their willingness to come in here to set an even higher standard, and that they were willing to do the tough things to do so.”

The spring season presented a new set of challenges for the freshman. Unlike fall competition, the spring season for college tennis is a team game, in which individual triumphs mean nothing if the whole squad does not thrive.

“When you’re playing juniors tournaments, 99 percent of what you do is individual,” coach Troy Porco said. “Then, when you come into the spring season here, its team versus team, and that pressure is a little bit different.”

It was evident early on that the Virginia coaching staff had an enormous amount of confidence in the trio’s ability to adapt to the new style of play. Elbaba and Nauta were placed at first and second singles respectively, while Epstein played either the No. 3 or 4 position. All three played doubles as well, with Epstein and her partner, senior Erin Vierra, headlining the lineup and ranking as high as fifth in the country. These rankings demanded high expectations, but the freshmen credit their upperclassmen teammates for their early success.

“Always playing next to each other helps us to motivate and support each other,” Nauta said. “We cheer for each other on-court and that definitely takes some of the pressure off.”

The Cavaliers got off to a rocky start early, going 0-3 at the ITA National Team Indoor Tournament in early February. Their woes were multiplied when Epstein injured her ankle in practice prior to the team’s first ACC match. Virginia continued its slide into March, falling to 3-6 and down in the national polls to No. 47. Despite the skid, Elbaba and Nauta continued to improve at the top of the lineup.

“These kids are not afraid of competition and that was some of the urgency they needed,” Guilbeau said. “They needed some of the real pressure and adversity, and I say that with all of the confidence in the world … They do what you want your best players to do, which is understand that pressure is a privilege; you wouldn’t have it if there wasn’t something important about what we’re doing.”

Behind the strong play of Nauta and Elbaba, Virginia began to turn its season around. The Cavaliers stormed into Montgomery, Ala. in mid-March to win the Blue-Gray Tennis Classic for the second year in a row — this time with Nauta earning MVP honors, as well as ACC Player of the Week.

Following the tournament victory, Virginia caught fire. The Cavaliers went 10-2 in their final 12 matches, with both losses coming as 4-3 decisions to top-15 teams on the road. The results paid off when they cracked the top 15 in the ITA rankings. Elbaba climbed to be the No. 12 singles ranking — the best of any freshman in the country. Unsurprisingly, Nauta holds the second-highest ranking for Virginia at No. 73. Wednesday, both Elbaba and Nauta were named to the All-ACC team, while Elbaba picked up the Freshman of the Year award. Due to its late season surge, Virginia earned the No. 3 seed and a bye in this week’s ACC Tournament.

“These tournaments are going to drive me to play even harder,” Nauta said. “I’m extremely motivated to go out a couple more times and give it my all. Hopefully we can come out and get some good wins.”

A strong finish in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments could cement the Cavaliers’ place as an elite tennis program, and if these three freshmen step more firmly into leadership roles, the future will be even brighter.

“It’s going to be incredible when that group really starts to make decisions within this team,” Guilbeau said. “We’re only going to go even further and get even better, that’s how highly I think of those three. I can’t wait to see them thrive.”

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