The Illini open the season this weekend at the FGCU Invitational in Fort Myers, Fla.
Jan. 11, 2011
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - After finishing the 2010 season with its first top-25 finish since 2004, the Illinois women's tennis team will be picking up where it left off, as the squad earned a No. 25 national ranking to start the year and will be vying for its fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
"Last year's finish at the NCAA tournament left a bitter feeling that all the girls used to motivate them through summer and fall training," fifth-year head coach Michelle Dasso said. "We also gained valuable experience last year with some very close matches on the road and one of the toughest schedules in the country, which our team will now be more comfortable facing.
"The team worked diligently on their conditioning this fall, which will help them not just physically, but also mentally in the tight, grueling matches we'll face. They have a sense of confidence that only comes through hard work. The conditioning base will also help the team stay healthy, which is a key component to our success."
The Illini return seven letterwinners from last season, including seniors Leigh Finnegan, Marisa Lambropoulos and Annie McCarthy, juniors Chelcie Abajian and Amy Allin and sophomores Breanne Smutko and Rachael White, and have added five-star recruits Allison Falkin and Misia Kedzierski, who will work to fill the gap left by graduated seniors Kristina Minor, Christine Stromberg and four-time All-Big Ten honoree and team MVP Megan Fudge.
"This is my first year coaching a team with all players I recruited," Dasso said. "I am very happy with the quality of players, as well as people I have on board. They are a great group of kids who come from very supportive families and are excited about taking Illinois tennis to new heights.
"The seniors have a strong desire to leave a positive mark on the program and take a great deal of pride in the direction our program has gone in their time at Illinois."
Lambropoulos, who sat out this past fall while recovering from a wrist injury, tied her career high with 22 singles wins for the second straight season and surpassed her career-best doubles total with 24 in 2010, including an 18-5 mark with Smutko.
"Marisa was playing the best tennis of her career prior to her injury last season, and we are looking forward to her healthy return," Dasso said. "She plays extremely well in high-pressure situations and with poise when the match is on the line."
Finnegan also missed much of the fall due to injury, but is expected to make a return to the lineup for the spring. In limited action last season, she tallied 16 wins in singles, including eight in Big Ten matches, and posted 14 doubles victories.
"Leigh has battled injuries during her time as an Illini, but is determined to play through pain and do the best she can for her teammates in her final semester of eligibility," Dasso said.
McCarthy secured eight of her nine singles wins in tournament play in 2010, while in doubles, she teamed up with Allin to go 16-2 for the year. McCarthy is already off to a solid start this season after recording five wins for the fall.
"Annie's fitness level has drastically increased in her four years as an Illini through the dedication she has put into that area," Dasso said. "She is determined to leave a positive legacy on the Illinois tennis program."
Abajian and Allin move into an upperclassman role this season and have already begun establishing themselves as leaders on the team and according to Dasso, "are exceptional representations of the team-first mentality."
Abajian secured her second straight 20-win season with 21 victories in both singles and doubles last year, including seven against Big Ten opponents.
"Chelcie cares so much for her teammates and this program and is never satisfied, which are great qualities to possess," Dasso said. "They are the characteristics you need amongst your players when you are continually trying to move a team forward."
Allin proved to be a strong competitor in tournament play last season, as 13 of her 17 singles wins came in fall tournament action and she also combined with McCarthy to finish 16-2 in doubles.
"Since the day Amy arrived at Illinois, she has had a tremendous work ethic and is now seeing that pay off," Dasso said. "She had a very good fall and will carry that renewed confidence over into the spring season."
Sophomores Smutko and White made an immediate impact in the lineup last season, with White playing 14 matches at Nos. 1 and 2 singles, while Smutko ranked second on the team with 22 wins, including seven in conference play.
"They are more comfortable, gained valuable experience last season and have a much greater awareness of what to expect," Dasso said. "Bre's biggest opponent is herself. When she is healthy physically and mentally she can have an incredible impact on this team. She has a very good awareness of what she needs to do to be the best player and teammate she can possibly be.
"Rachael's leadership jump in one year is going to prove to be very instrumental for this team. Although her demeanor doesn't always show it, she is extremely competitive and tough on herself. She cares so much for the team and is extremely humble, which are refreshing qualities to find in a top player."
White led the team in both singles (6) and doubles (8) wins for the fall and was rewarded in the first individual rankings of 2011, checking in at No. 100 nationally and 14th in the Midwest region. In doubles, White and Falkin were ranked 15th nationally and No. 3 in the region.
Similar to last season, this year's newcomers are expected to contribute right off the bat and have already experienced a busy fall season. Dasso noted the freshman class "brings a fresh level of excitement, competitiveness and drive to the program."
Falkin found much success teaming up with White in doubles this past fall, as the duo registered a team-best five wins and finished runner-up at the USTA/ITA Midwest Regional Championships in October.
"Allison does a tremendous job of transitioning from defense to offense and passionately competes each time she steps on the court," Dasso said. "She will continue to grow as a player as she gains more confidence in her backhand. Getting to the finals of the doubles regional was an outstanding accomplishment, particularly for a freshman."
Kedzierski collected a pair of singles wins in her first collegiate tournaments and tallied three victories in doubles playing exclusively with White.
"Despite being a freshman, Misia plays with the fearless attitude of a veteran," Dasso said. "The team respects how she handles herself on the court and her competitive drive. A continued emphasis on a quick first step and increased fitness level will be our focus as she gains more experience."
"It is such a huge advantage to have a volunteer assistant, particularly when you have someone with the passion and personality Ric possesses," Dasso said. "His constant positive demeanor and enjoyment of the game rubs off on our players.
"Coaching comes naturally to Georgia and she is becoming more comfortable taking on additional responsibilities in her young coaching career. She is well respected by the players and does an exceptional job running the conditioning program. All of our players have seen a marked increase in their fitness level."
The Orange and Blue will once again face a difficult dual schedule in 2011, as the Illini are slated to play at least 10 teams currently ranked in the top 30, including in their home opener next Saturday against No. 4 Notre Dame (1/22), followed by No. 13 Tennessee (1/23) on Sunday.
"We face another challenging schedule this spring, but we have 12 home matches, which will be a huge benefit to play such tough opponents in front of our supportive home crowds," Dasso said. "We understand the importance of being prepared for every opponent we face when you play a schedule like ours and we look forward to the competition and hope there are many tight matches."
Nine Big Ten schools will open the season ranked in the top 75, with four inside the top 30, including No. 8 Michigan, No. 9 Northwestern, No. 25 Illinois and No. 30 Iowa. Six conference schools, including Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern and Ohio State, made NCAA appearances last season, while the Wolverines claimed their first Big Ten regular-season title since 1997 and the Wildcats won their 12th straight conference tournament title.
The Big Ten Tournament will take place April 28-May 1 on the campus of the University of Michigan, while the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament will get underway May 13-14, followed by the NCAA Championships in Stanford, Calif., May 20-30 at the Taube Tennis Center.