BY GABE COHN
Last week, the University of Tampa women’s tennis team went through arguably their toughest stretch of matches this year. The Spartans squared off against the No. 7 Saint Leo University Lions on Wednesday, the No. 2 Barry University Buccaneers on Saturday, and the No. 3 Nova Southeastern University Sharks on Sunday.
All of those schools are in the Sunshine State Conference, which, according to several UT players, is the best conference in all of Division II women’s tennis. With the high level of competition, the Spartans were presented with an opportunity to compete against the best while also continuing to grow as a team. Senior captain Kristen Mee explained what her team’s mindset was heading into their vigorous matches.
“The Sunshine State Conference is the toughest tennis conference in the U.S.,” Mee said. “My teammates and I are not letting these teams, that are ranked in the top ten nationally, take over how we play; we will fight as a team. Together we have to look at these matchups in a positive light, play our game, and hope for the best.”
UT’s assistant coach Robin Hochguertel explained the meaning of these matches and how they prepared.
“These matches mean a lot to us,” Hochguertel said. “Fifty percent of our team are freshmen, so these matches give them a great experience to look forward to. They will test our game and tell us where we stand at this point of the season.”
The first match against the Saint Leo Lions was rough for the Spartans. Going into the match, the Lions were 12-1 and 3-0 in the SSC. Through six individual matches and six doubles matches, the Spartans came out of the match with one individual victory from sophomore Gianna Pinasco (6-7, 7-6, 10-5). The Spartans lost the overall match 8-1.
That same theme would persist in their weekend matches as well. On Saturday, the Spartans lost 8-1 yet again, this time to the Barry Buccaneers. Freshman Maddie Stephens (6-4, 4-6, 10-8) captured the sole victory for the Spartans.
On Sunday, the Spartans faced the Nova Southeastern Sharks, where they fell to a score of 8-1 for the third time. Pinasco (6-1, 6-3) again secured the only victory for UT.
The Spartans didn’t do as well as they may have hoped for, but they learned valuable lessons and gained tremendous experience through their intense matches.
“Half our team are freshman and the transition to college tennis is much different than what they are use to in high school,” Mee said. “For these matches we looked at them as good learning experiences for the underclassman and my job as senior captain is to keep making sure everyone stays positive throughout these tough matches so we can grow from them.”
Through the strenuous matches there were a lot of positives according to head coach Al Dufaux.
“This week, we got three big wins by Maddie Stephens and Gianna Pinasco ,” Dufaux said. “It is always very difficult and challenging to play top-10-ranked schools, however by beating at least one of their players, our girls proved that hard work really does pay off.”
Even though they lost all of their doubles matches, UT showed heart and a willingness to improve.
“Our doubles game looks solid at the moment and we are constantly improving,” Dufaux said. “It is always good to play tough competition and see where we are at. The three matches against Saint Leo, Barry [and] Nova gave us a good understanding of where we are at the moment and where we need to be for the remainder of the season.”
The Spartans (6-7, 0-5 SSC) have some work to do to reach the top, but they have shown constant strives that go beyond this past week. On the season, UT has defeated two ranked teams (No. 33 Chestnut Hill, 5-4 and No.43 Texas A&M-Kingsville, 5-4) and have laid down a strong foundation for the future.
The road doesn’t get easier for the Spartans as they make their way towards the SSC tournament. They square off against the No. 5 Lynn University Fighting Knights on April 9th in Tampa and then face the No. 34 Rollins Tars on April 12th.