Women’s tennis rolls into conference play

Photo not taken at event referenced in story (NICHOLAS CHAN / AGGIE FILE)

Aggies’ hot start has team confident to compete for Big West crown

It’s only February, but the UC Davis women’s tennis team is getting its gears turning early. The Aggies have won eight of their first 11 matches this season and have enjoyed top-level performances from almost every spot on the roster. But the team’s winning record so far is only a part of what makes head coach Bill Maze so adamant about the winning potential of this year’s squad.

The team’s success this month hit its peak on Feb.13, when the Aggies earned a statement victory over conference rival and last year’s Big West Conference regular season champions Hawai’i. The 4-2 win was the first time that a UC Davis women’s tennis team had defeated the Rainbow Wahine since 2007. In fact, UC Davis had fallen to Hawai’i on five straight occasions going into this season’s match, but the Aggies were able to turn the tide by dominating the Wahine in singles play after dropping the doubles point.

“I got to work on figuring Hawai’i out with the dubs,” Maze said. “But I think we just got a team that believes in themselves. [This team has] a lot of talent, they never give up.”

The Aggies did not let their failures in the doubles matches interfere with how they competed across the board in singles. When all was said and done, UC Davis swept singles play, winning four of the five completed matches –– all in straight sets. Even at the number one spot, senior Kristy Jorgensen fought to a third set and was leading 3-1 when sophomore Kristina Breisacher won at the two spot to seal the win for UC Davis.

“The fact that we won in straight sets at number two, three, four and five –– and we were up in the third set at number one –– it wasn’t like it was a fluke,” Maze said. “It was legit.”

Winning the four straight-set singles matches was just the start that the Aggies wanted in their first conference slate of the season –– especially given the team’s past struggles with Hawai’i. Maze believes that this win in particular was a unique display of the talent that this unit possesses and will “breed confidence” for the team in the matches to come.

Before their next batch of conference matches, however, the Aggies squared off against a pair of northern California private schools over president’s day weekend. The first of the two contests fell in UC Davis’ favor, as the Aggies traveled to the city by the bay to down the University of San Francisco Dons by a 4-1 score. This time, the Aggies secured the doubles point with a pair of 6-2 set wins coming from both the two and three spots.

When singles play rolled around, Breisacher finished her two-spot matchup first, making quick work of her opponent –– USF’s Anna Sokiran –– to advance to a 6-4, 6-0 straight sets victory. In the one spot, though, the Aggies lost their only point of the match when Jorgensen retired after the second set due to a nagging injury that prevented her from playing on into the third.

On the other singles courts, the surface conditions swiftly became dangerous. On nearly every court except for the number one court, a strip of water appeared to be rising up and dampening the court from below. This made the playing surface on these courts too slippery to play on. While freshman Sara Tsukamoto was able to finish out her match with a 6-2, 6-4 win, the other three singles matches had to be delayed.

Junior Isabella von Ebbe and her opponent, USF’s Alexa Meyer, were nearly through the first set of the number six match when their court was deemed unsafe. With similar hazards on almost all other courts, von Ebbe’s match was delayed and then finally relocated to the one’s court where the surface was not affected by damp conditions.

“Once you’ve already started a match, you’re already in it and you’re focused,” von Ebbe said. “Then to have some curveball thrown, like water coming up from the bottom of the court, is definitely a weird situation.”

All the eyes were now on von Ebbe and Meyer battle it out on the main court. Players and coaches from both teams, because none of the other matches could be played, sat bundled in layers and blankets to keep warm in the midst of the cold San Francisco evening that kept creeping closer. Seeing all of her teammates huddled on the sidelines gave von Ebbe an extra incentive to try and end the match by winning the final point that the Aggies needed.

“It was all the more fun to be the only one on, under the lights, everyone watching that one match and having my entire team playing every point with me,” von Ebbe said. “That’s not something that happens in your typical college match where there’s six courts and people playing on each court.”

Von Ebbe fell 6-3 in the first set, but would roar back to win the second set 6-4 in dramatic fashion. The path to victory was now clear; if von Ebbe won the third set, UC Davis would clinch the match by securing its fourth point. If she did not win, the next remaining unfinished singles match would then have to be played. If the Aggies did not win that match either, there was yet another unfinished match to be played.

“In the back of my head, I did have that thought that this match could go on til midnight if I don’t turn this around, come back and win this second and take it in the third,” von Ebbe said. “There was definitely more motivation to win that one.”

Fortunately for the Aggies, von Ebbe cruised to a 6-2 victory in the final set to clinch the match for the team and avoided prolonging the match deeper into the chilly evening. For Maze, the ability of von Ebbe and the entire team to prevail on the road despite the unusual circumstances shows that the Aggies are more than just talented –– they are “resilient.”

UC Davis had little rest following this unorthodox win in San Francisco. The Aggies returned to Davis to play Saint Mary’s College the next day at 12 p.m. The Gaels turned out to be a much more formidable opponent than the Dons were for a tired UC Davis team, battling past the Aggies for a 5-2 win. But according to Maze, even with the Aggies’ consistent number one option, Jorgensen, sidelined due to the same injury that prevented her from continuing in San Francisco, the match was much closer than the score would indicate.

Von Ebbe and redshirt sophomore Kelsie Bryant claimed the first doubles victory in a 6-1 set, but Breisacher and senior Lani-Rae Green could not overcome the Gael’s number one doubles team. The doubles point thus came down to the number two match, where Tsukamoto and sophomore Nikita Pradeep narrowly lost in a 7-6 nailbiter. In singles, there were some close matches as well. Maze opted to put Breisacher in the one spot in place of the injured Jorgensen, and although Breisacher has rarely played at the one spot, she was able to take SMC’s Maria Kozyreva into a third set.

“I was proud of our team, I think it was a good battle,” Maze said. “I think that [the loss], instead of bumming [the team] out, they thought ‘man, this team’s ranked and we were right there with them.’ I think it just gave them more and more encouragement. [SMC’s] number one doubles team is ranked 35 in the country and we lost that set 6-4 with our normal number two doubles team.”

Despite suffering just their second loss of the season, the Aggies were able to perform well against highly-ranked opponent –– something that this team has done consistently so far this season. Maze accredits this tendency to the team’s “even-keeled” nature.

“I don’t think they treat any team differently,” Maze said. “I think they play the same way every match. […] They always want to win. That’s a good quality –– to be even-keeled about your competition. You don’t want to get way up for one match, and then be overconfident in another one. They play the same consistently good tennis.”

Looking further down the schedule, the Aggies will be needing to rely on the same consistency to be successful in the conference this season, as matches against top-tier talent loom. And while talent, resiliency and consistency are all excellent traits to possess, Maze also notes that a team also has to “get lucky” in order to have a truly great year.

“You got to have not many injuries and players have to get along,” Maze said. “They’ve got to love to play and be hard workers. We have most of those ingredients, but the injury thing, you just can’t control it.”

The work ethic, however, is one thing that Aggies are certainly in control of. And while the entire team works exceptionally hard on and off the court, the team’s two true sophomores have especially shined this season. Pradeep, for one, was awarded Big West player of the week honors for her stellar singles victories in both the Hawai’i and Saint Mary’s matches. Breisacher has come into her own in her second season as well, sporting a 5-4 singles record as a top-two option in each match.

“We believe in them totally,” Maze said. “From the day they showed up in Davis they’ve proven that they know how to win. They’re talented, they work hard and they’re just really competitive people. They do not like to lose. [Pradeep] had a phenomenal record last year and she’s 8-0 this year. [Breisacher] has proven to me that she can win in one of the top two spots. We’re lucky to have them.”

Pradeep and Breisacher have been high-level contributors for the Aggies, but at such an early point in the season, anyone on the roster can still have an opportunity to rise to the occasion as UC Davis continues to fight to secure its first conference championship.

The Aggies were shut out by UCSB on Saturday, losing 4-0, but bounced back with a close win at Cal Poly on Sunday, winning 4-3. The women’s tennis team will take the Marya Welch Tennis Center again this Saturday, March 3 at 11 a.m. to face Cal State Northridge.

 

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org