A year ago, the Southwestern University Pirates women's tennis team entered the season having lost what should have been its senior class to early graduation and an All-American to transfer.
Expectations were cast off with those core pieces of the roster, giving the young Pirates team room with which it grew, earning the highest national ranking in program history. This year, the women's tennis team will find it much tougher to surprise if only because those expectations have returned with how last year's roster outperformed them.
Now, the Pirates have 10 players returning with experience competing at the national level and a top-20 incoming class. So far as problems go, figuring out how to mesh the old and new without disrupting the culture that carried Southwestern last year is a good one to have.
"It's a challenge we're facing right now," Head Coach Billy Porter said. "The sophomore class is feeling the effects of having a wave of strong first years behind them.
"Our juniors and seniors are used to that with four of our past five recruiting classes being in the top 25. Right now, a lot of our girls are on edge not knowing what's going to happen. Our message has been to relax a little, not play so stressed and let it play itself out."
Last weekend, the Pirates hosted two nationally ranked Division II schools and UT-Tyler for the annual SU Quad. Even in the comfort of home, nerves bubbled to the surface.
"They played with way too much stress last weekend, even though we warned against it," Porter said. "The quad is the one carefree weekend they get a year, so we're hoping the week of preparation will get them ready for the ITA when it actually matters."
Any bit of nerves were overshadowed by flashes of potential, getting wins from first year (2) Nina Mitrofanova, sophomore (5) Nina Elez, and senior (6) Cecile Wilde over No. 15 St. Edward's University; and wins by (2) Mitrofanova and (3) Mariana Quetzeri over No. 28 Tarleton State University even as the Pirates lost as a team.
"I think the quad was a good preparation tournament against Division II teams," Porter said. The goal there is to slow things down for the ITA since it's a different game at the DII and DIII level and that's going to be more of what we see if we can make it to the later rounds at the ITA."
This weekend, the Pirates will compete at the ITA Regional, hosted in Abilene, Texas from Sep. 20-22. There, Southwestern will get a first look at whether expectations are the kind of combustion that drives or creates collateral damage.
Southwestern will enter the ITA Regional without All-American Mary Cardone, who is currently making another case for All-American on the soccer field. In her stead at the No. 1 spot will be Esther Bowers, who finished last season ranked No. 16 in the West Region in singles playing in the second spot and combined with Wilde to form the No. 12 doubles pairing in region.
Mitrofanova will get the nod at No. 2 after going 3-0 in singles and 2-1 in doubles over last weekend. Behind her are Mariana Quetzeri and first year Emma Kesterson. Wilde is questionable after an injury forced her to withdraw early at the SU Quad but the young class appears ready to fill in.
"The biggest thing [the first year class] brings to the table is the confidence our team lacked last season, which sounds crazy because we had our highest ranking," Porter said. "They bring accountability to everyone in practice led by Nina [Mitrofanova] on the court and Alli Ziehm off the court has been phenomenal."
So far, the Pirates have spent a lot of work on conditioning, working with Men's Lacrosse Assistant Coach Mike Markland. This weekend, their tennis will be tested in the dry, scorching conditions in Abilene.
"The wind is always a factor out there. You just never know when the ball will sail a little more," Porter said.
After last year's success, the Pirates will also be playing with a target on their backs.
"When you've been the No. 2 team in Texas for the last half decade, people are gunning for you. You're always, going to get everyone's best shot," Porter said. "Our upperclassmen are used to that, our sophomore class is learning that, and our first years have no idea what that feels like."
Singles matches been on Friday with a best of three formant and a tie-breaker for the third. All doubles matches will be pro sets. Bowers was named the No. 4 seed in her A Draw bracket with teammates Mitrofanova and Kesterson drawing the seventh and eighth seeds.
In doubles, Bowers and Mitrofanova were seeded third in the A draw with Kesterson and Wilde seeded fourth. In the B draw, Vrba and Lee were seeded first with Shethia and Candelario fifth.
"We're going to use the ITA as a measuring stick," Porter said. "We've harped on this for a month now. The results aren't the end all, be all but we're looking to see how they perform a the DIII level and how they conduct themselves because we're looking for the best six girls come spring."