By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the UVa tennis family, the men have lost none of their stature. Coach Brian Boland’s team is ranked No. 2 nationally and figures to again contend for the NCAA title come May.
What’s new is the UVa women’s place of prominence in the college tennis world. In 2011, the Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA women’s tournament’s round of 16 for the first time. And now, in their seventh season under Mark Guilbeau, the Wahoos are 5-0 and ranked No. 9 nationally.
“It’s so rewarding for me to really see and be a part of the program transforming from a program that was respectable, but wasn’t really one of the best, to now being one of the best in the country,” Emily Fraser said. “It’s really special to be a part of something like that. It’s honestly, I think, more special to be a part of that building process than to come into a program that’s already well-established. I feel really honored to have been a part of it.”
Fraser, who plays No. 1 singles, is one of two seniors on Virginia’s roster. The other is Lindsey Hardenbergh, who plays No. 2 singles. As freshmen, they joined a program that was coming off a 10-13 season. With Fraser and Hardenbergh in the lineup, the ‘Hoos finished 14-10 in 2009, 15-10 in 2010 and 20-8 last year.
“I think that really the biggest part of our transformation has been changing the culture of the team,” Fraser said, “just our outlook and our perspective and what we expect of ourselves, and the way we carry ourselves on and off the court. I think that’s kind of been the main reason that we’ve done better. Not necessarily because of this overwhelming amount of talent, even though we have gotten a lot of talent over the last couple of years. I think more it’s just the bond among the team and how we look at ourselves and treat ourselves and think about how we’re going to do.”
Guilbeau’s team can take another step forward this weekend. Sixteen of the nations’ top 23 teams are in Charlottesville for the ITA women’s national team indoor championships, which start Friday and run through Monday at the Boar’s Head Sports Club. Admission is free.
Virginia, seeded No. 7, opens with Northwestern at 6:30 p.m. Friday. This is the second year in a row the Boar’s Head has hosted the tourney and the second straight year the ‘Hoos have competed.
They were ranked No. 23 at this time last year but, as the host team, received an automatic invitation to the ITA indoor championships. They made the most of the opportunity, knocking off No. 3 seed Baylor in the first round and later defeating Northwestern in the consolation bracket.
“I think last year maybe some people weren’t expecting us to be a contender in the tournament, especially considering the host the [previous] couple of years, Wisconsin, had not done well,” Fraser said. “But I think this year we’ve definitely established ourselves as being capable of being in that group. I think that other teams view us that way as well.”
Guilbeau, whose assistant coach is Troy Porco, had no seniors on the team last year. The newcomers this season are sophomore Li Xi and freshman Molly O’Koniewski. Xi, a native of China whose nickname is “Chili,” attended UVa in 2010-11. She was able to practice with the team but had to sit out a year before the NCAA would rule her eligible.
“It’s a long, tough process for someone like Chili, to have to keep working and keep working and not have maybe the benefits or the rewards of getting to play the actual competition,” Guilbeau said. “And I’ve got to give her a ton of credit. She handled herself great.”
Xi, who has been playing No. 3 singles, could end up at No. 2 or even No. 1 before the season ends.
“She’s in a good spot now,” Guilbeau said. “Emily and Lindsey are playing some great tennis. It’s only a bonus if we have the ability to maybe potentially move her up higher at some point.”
Fraser said: “It was frustrating last year to have such a talented player only able to practice and not able to compete for us. But I just feel so confident in our team this year, more than I’ve ever felt, especially with her in there, knowing that we have such a deep lineup now. Girls that could absolutely be playing a lower position for other schools in the country are not even in our lineup.”
Juniors Hana Tomljanovic and Erin Vierra have been playing Nos. 4 and 5 singles for UVa, respectively, and classmate Maria Fuccillo is at No. 6. Rounding out the roster are O’Koniewski and sophomores Marjorie Baker, Caryssa Peretz and Clare Spooner.
“To have had a couple of them for four years now, going through everything that it’s taken to build the program up to this level, is so special,” said Guilbeau, who praised “Emily and Lindsey and the leadership they’ve shown. And Emily Fraser is not a kid that came in as a natural outspoken-type leader. Not that she speaks a ton now, but she does step up. I could not have ever asked for more, on the court and then what she’s grown into, on and off the court, as a leader.”
In November, UVa announced the signings of two of the nation’s top junior players — Julia Elbaba and Maci Epstein. They’ll enroll at the University this summer, and Guilbeau hopes to add another noteworthy recruit to his 2012-13 class.
The program’s rise has not escaped the notice of elite juniors, according to Guilbeau.
“We’ve always had a pretty good reception,” he said, “but I think the most important thing is now when the recruits are here on campus, they see this group and they see a team that, No. 1, works together, that’s so supportive and real. They’re positive. They’ll communicate with each other the right way, and they’ll make sure they get to the real issues and help each other.”
Recruits “also see a high level of tennis,” Guilbeau said. “That was hurting us for a couple years, to be honest. Maybe we’d have top recruits come in here, and our depth was just lacking to the point where they weren’t impressed. It’s understandable sometimes. So I’m really happy that this group has worked beyond that and, again, so proud of a Fraser and a Hardenbergh for being here through this thing.”
As for his team’s ceiling, Guilbeau said, “If we keep getting better every day, I think we have a chance to play and compete and potentially beat anyone. I really do. I think we’re going to take some losses here and there. As with any team, it’s some of those moments when you learn the most. But I definitely think that [the players] know it, and we know it as a coaching staff, that we right now can compete with anyone, and if we can keep getting a little better, I think we can have a shot at winning ACCs and being a top national contender for the whole thing.”
Just like the UVa men’s team.
“It’s great for us to have that,” Fraser said, “and it serves as motivation for us, because maybe it puts a little chip on our shoulder that we’re not quite to that level that they are. And obviously if we are to reach that point, it’s going to take a little while, but we’re steadily heading that way. They deserve so much respect for what they’ve accomplished, and we’re definitely proud to be a part of the Virginia tennis family now and hopefully to have the same results that they’ve had.”