The Illini will open the season ranked 24th in the nation and will face No. 9 Miami on Sunday.
Jan. 11, 2013
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The Fighting Illini women's tennis team will start the season ranked 24th in the nation, marking the second time in the last three years the program has opened the spring in the top 25. Illinois will look to capitalize on its returning talent to earn a chance to play in front of its home crowd at the NCAA Championships, which will take place in May at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex in Urbana.
"This is going to be a unique year," Illini head coach Michelle Dasso said. "We have a lot of experience up top and maybe not as much experience down low. We have passionate players. We have girls who are really driven and have great work ethics. I'm excited to see who steps up and takes over. We have set a standard, and being part of Illinois women's tennis and Illinois tennis in general requires a very high standard."
The 2013 squad returns six players from last year's team, which earned the program's first win over a top-10 opponent (No. 9 Texas) since 2003 and reached as high as No. 18 in the nation, marking its highest ranking in the past nine years. The roster features two 2012 first-team All-Big Ten honorees -- junior Allison Falkin and sophomore Melissa Kopinski --- and 2011 selection, senior Rachael White.
Illinois also boasts the nation's 11th-ranked doubles team -- White and Kopinski -- and two nationally ranked singles players, including No. 59 Falkin and No. 106 Kopinski. Together, the trio, along with senior standout Breanne Smutko, will look to lead the Illini to the Big Ten title and another NCAA berth.
"I'm hoping Breanne and Rachael use their experience to take the helm," Dasso said. "We've really gotten better each year they've been here. They've had a taste of what it takes to succeed and can use that to lead the team."
White is coming off a stellar fall during which she and Kopinski led the team with 12 doubles wins, including five over ranked opponents. The tandem played its way to the quarterfinals of the Riviera/ITA All-American Championships and won the USTA/ITA Midwest Regional doubles title in Urbana to earn a bid to the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships in Flushing, N.Y. Their doubles title marked Illinois' first since 2002. Last year, White notched her first career Big Ten Tennis Athlete of the Week honor after knocking off the nation's third-ranked doubles team.
Fellow senior Smutko spent parts of the last two seasons in the national doubles rankings, reaching as high as No. 27 in 2012 with former Illini Chelcie Abajian. Smutko played in one tournament over the fall, going 2-1 in singles at the Midwest Blast.
Falkin earned All-Big Ten honors for the first time in her career last season and compiled a career-high 18 singles wins, playing at Nos. 1 and 2. She cracked the national singles rankings for the first time in her career in 2012 and jumped to No. 59 to start the 2013 spring season. Falkin also had doubles success last year, reaching No. 40 in the rankings with partner White.
"Allison is such a fighter," Dasso said. "She is fun to watch and is one of the best competitors I've had. She proved herself last year and did very well at the top spot. She is a very smart player and finds a way to break down her opponents. She has gotten better, and her composure has improved."
Along with her incredible fall playing alongside White, Kopinski returns as one of Illinois' top singles players. The Palos Hills, Ill., native led the team last season with a 23-9 mark in singles, playing primarily at Nos. 2 and 3. She made her debut in the national rankings in 2012 and will start the season at a career-high No. 106.
"Melissa certainly had a great freshman year," Dasso said. "And Melissa and Rachael had a great fall in doubles, but it's not really where you start here. It's about where you end. We're starting from scratch. Their goal is to be playing in the NCAA doubles tournament on our home courts this May. Obviously, they have a long way to go. It's a long season, and we need to keep getting better. The confidence that they've picked up is good, but we should never be satisfied."
Junior Misia Kedzierski also returns for 2013 after posting a career-best 11-4 singles mark last season. Her first two seasons were plagued by injuries, but she remained healthy last fall and played in three tournaments, going 3-5.
"Misia had the most consistent fall she has ever had since she's been here," Dasso said. "In the past, she has battled some injuries. Hopefully, we can keep her healthy. If she is consistently able to practice and compete, it is going to help the team down the road."
Sophomore Julia Jamieson went 7-2 in singles and 8-4 in doubles last season. She and freshman Audrey O'Connor lack some on-court experience but will be instrumental in Illinois' fate throughout 2013. O'Connor saw her first collegiate action last fall, going 4-6 in singles.
"Julia and Audrey haven't had as much experience but are ready to go," Dasso said. "The work ethic that they demonstrate on a daily basis is inspiring. It's fun to work with them as a coach, and that's the character and passion that you want on a team."
The Illini recently added an eighth player, freshman Emily Barretta. The four-star recruit joined the team in December after graduating a semester early from New Trier High School.
"Emily will help with depth," Dasso said. "She will definitely be someone to turn to if needed and shows great desire to improve and compete."
Assistant coach Mark Denenfeld joined the Illinois staff in January after former assistant coach Georgia Rose became the assistant at South Carolina in December. Denenfeld played at Kalamazoo College from 2009-12 and earned all-Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association honors in three of his four years.
The Illini will face a tough schedule in 2013, beginning with No. 9 Miami on Jan. 13. Seventeen of Illinois' 22 regular season opponents are nationally ranked to start the season, and six are in the top 25. Nine other Big Ten teams cracked the rankings, including No. 13 Northwestern, No. 16 Michigan, No. 17 Nebraska, No. 27 Purdue, No. 41 Minnesota, No. 49 Indiana, No. 50 Penn State, No. 57 Ohio State and No. 75 Wisconsin.
"There are no easy matches," Dasso said. "But that's how growth occurs. If you want to be the best, you've got to play the best. We need to take it one match at a time and remember that every match is an opportunity."