Jan. 13, 2014
The Notre Dame women's tennis team finished the 2012-13 season and its 18-year run in the BIG EAST conference with its sixth consecutive BIG EAST title, upping its number of championships to 13. Everything is set to change this year as Notre Dame moves to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Jay Louderback enters his 25th season as head coach at Notre Dame with a team that has a balance of veteran experience and youthful enthusiasm.
Last year, the Irish went 18-9 on the season, beating nine nationally ranked foes. The team took down Marquette, DePaul and South Florida to win the BIG EAST title and then triumphed over 42nd-ranked North Carolina State in the first round of the NCAA Championships. The Irish eventually fell to 10th-ranked Michigan in the second round, and finished the season ranked 24th in the country.
Louderback was honored as BIG EAST Coach of the Year for the fourth consecutive season, and junior Britney Sanders was named BIG EAST Player of the Year.
This year, seven monogram winners return, and the Irish welcome three freshmen: Mary Closs (Menlo Park, Calif.), Monica Robinson (Valley Center, Calif.) and Jane Fennelly (Rathmines, Ireland).
Notre Dame graduated only one senior last year, Chrissie McGaffigan. With five out of six players from the singles lineup returning, Louderback remarks that experience will be one of the greatest strengths of this year's team.
There is also a balance between the classes that allows for a lot of growth--three seniors, two juniors, four sophomores and three freshmen make up a symmetrical team of six upperclassmen and six underclassmen.
"All three seniors have played a lot for us," Louderback explains. "The experience that we have with them going into the ACC is going to be a big help. The younger kids have brought enthusiasm but are also very good players. We have a lot of depth and a lot of experience, which also pushes players because they know it's going to be tough to get into our lineup."
Among the seniors, Britney Sanders returns from a junior season in which she went 15-12 in the No. 1 spot. This is senior Jennifer Kellner's second season serving as a captain on the team, and senior Julie Sabacinski split her singles matches between the fifth and sixth spots last year.
Sophomore Quinn Gleason also had a stellar freshman season, going 20-3 in the No. 3 singles spot. Juniors Katherine White and Molly O'Koniewski shared playing time in the No. 5 and No. 6 spots as well and look to step up in McGaffigan's absence. Louderback also mentions sophomore Julie Vrabel, who did not see much action last spring after having shoulder surgery during her senior year of high school, but after a year of gaining more experience, she is ready to climb in the lineup.
Doubles will be exciting this season, Louderback says, because the Irish will have all new teams. Kellner played with McGaffigan last season and Sabacinski and Sanders have played together throughout their careers at Notre Dame. But Louderback looks to split them up this season with the idea that their experience will be better when paired with a younger player.
"All three seniors are experienced in doubles--they've all played at one time or another at No. 1 doubles for us," he says. "With that experience, it looks like we're going to separate them and we could have a senior on all three doubles teams."
Doubles has always been a strength for the Notre Dame team, and Louderback says with this kind of experience at every spot in the lineup, doubles could be one of the driving forces of this season. And who falls into which spot remains to be seen, as the head coach says that any of the three seniors is capable of playing at No. 1 with a younger player.
There will be a lot of adjusting this season as the Irish enter the ACC, and a daunting schedule awaits the team this spring. The challenges, however, are completely welcome to the Irish and Louderback.
"Going to the ACC is going to be a big plus for us. There were so many teams last year that were ranked ahead of us--we were 23 and there were six ACC teams ranked ahead of us."
With tougher opponents, Notre Dame will have more chances to climb in the national rankings if they perform. Louderback also points out that toughness will be present during the entire season, unlike in previous years.
"The front end of our schedule has always been the toughest," he explains. "It used to be that once we finished spring break, we didn't have many matches left that were going to help us. And now it's going to stretch through the whole year."
One of the toughest home matches will happen right off the bat, when the Irish play Georgia Tech Feb. 21. Last year, Notre Dame beat the Yellow Jackets in two very close matches, and Louderback says he expects things to be equally close this season.
While in the BIG EAST, the Irish were used to busing around for away matches, but this year there will also be a lot more flying. In late February and March, Notre Dame will face Miami, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina all on the road.
The spring season kicks off this Saturday, Jan. 18 against Western Michigan at 12 p.m. at the Eck Tennis Center.
--Lauren Chval, Media Relations Assistant