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April 3, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Five days after a humbling defeat to Memphis, the UVa women’s tennis team suffered another blow, losing Maci Epstein to a season-ending leg injury March 1.

Epstein, along with Julia Elbaba and Stephanie Nauta, is part of the most highly regarded freshman class in the program’s history, and her absence did not bode well for a team whose record was 2-4.

“It hasn’t been an easy season. We had to regroup big-time after Maci’s injury,” said Virginia coach Mark Guilbeau, who in the fall had seen Elbaba sidelined by a stress fracture.

The Cavaliers refused to splinter. Since the loss at Memphis, Virginia has won eight of 11 dual matches. The most memorable of those victories came Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C., where UVa upset No. 1 North Carolina 4-3.

Senior Erin Vierra’s win at No. 5 singles clinched the victory for the Wahoos, who before Saturday never had beaten a top-ranked opponent.

Twenty-four hours earlier, in Durham, Virginia had pushed No. 7 Duke to the limit before losing 4-3. As disappointing as that defeat was, Guilbeau said, his players “handled it really, really well. It was a well-played match. The level was high, and I think the kids understood that, and that’s what allowed them to pretty much come back and do the exact same thing on Saturday.”

In the latest ITA rankings, UVa (10-7 overall, 4-1 overall) rose nine spots, from No. 27 to No. 18. UNC remained at No. 1, and Duke moved from No. 7 to No. 6.

“We came out with a rough start,” Nauta said, “and we’ve had a bunch of injuries, with Jules in the fall and now Maci, but I think we’re really fighting through it and we’re staying strong as a team, and it’s really inspiring us to play that much harder.”

Guilbeau said: “I’m really proud of the kids. It’s good to be on a streak right now where we’re getting more wins. I want the kids to enjoy some success and enjoy these moments. But at the same time there hasn’t been a loss this year that has made us think we’re not doing a good job, as players or as a team.”

Virginia opened its dual-match season Feb. 1 with a 5-2 win over VCU in Richmond. The `Hoos then returned home to host the ITA national team indoor championships at the Boar’s Head Sports Club. They went 0-3 at that tournament, falling to Southern California, Michigan and Texas A&M, teams ranked Nos. 5, 8 and 4, respectively, by the ITA this week.

“I think there’s a lot of interpretation that things were way off, and that’s not the case at all,” Guilbeau said “The best match that we played all this year, in some ways, was the USC match, in first round of the indoors. It was just a tough draw. We were inches away from winning it.”

At the Blue/Gray Tennis Classic last month in Montgomery, Ala., the competition wasn’t as tough. UVa defeated Michigan State, Yale and then Tulane to capture the title, an accomplishment that boosted his team’s confidence, Guilbeau said.

“The Blue/Gray is such a special event, because it epitomizes what college tennis is all about,” Guilbeau said. “There’s a lot of spirit around that tournament, there’s a lot of support, there’s a lot of enjoyment on and off the courts, and if anything, that may have been what helped the team — having one of those moments where they get to experience some success and some fun.”

The Cavaliers’ freshmen expect to have many more such moments during their college careers. Each could have chosen to play for a national power — Nauta, for example, turned down a scholarship offer from Florida — but the opportunity to help build something of significance at UVa appealed to them.

“Honestly, Florida’s a great team, they’re really competitive, and they’re obviously on top,” Nauta said. “When I came here, I really saw a team that was kind of like the underdog, but they really wanted it. They really want to win, and they’re willing to do what it takes to win. And on top of it, [UVa’s players are] all just really close and very supportive of each other, and I feel like having that support is the key to success.”

Epstein, who’s from Winter Park, Fla., was playing No. 3 or No. 4 in Virginia’s singles lineup before she got hurt. Nauta (Galveston, Texas) and Elbaba (Oyster Bay, N.Y.) have split time at Nos. 1 and 2.

“We have a lot of experience from [junior tennis],” Elbaba said, “so we have a lot of experience that we’re bringing to the team, and a lot of motivation and determination to be best that we could be, and we want it badly.”

Nauta said she and her teammates draw inspiration from the UVa men, who are ranked No. 1 nationally.

“We’re really close to them,” Nauta said. “My best friends are on that team, and to see them work hard and be successful, I feel like that drives us to want to be that good, too.”

Guilbeau said his freshmen have impressed him not only with their play on the court, but with their contributions as team leaders.

“Some years you have one kid that can do it,” he said. “Other years you need all eight. This is one of those years where everyone’s had to pitch in, and I’m really, really proud of the first-years for being willing to speak up and kind of keep the standard where it should be and not maybe take too long to have their standard and the standard of this team be where it should be.”

In early October, at the ITA All-American championships in Los Angeles, Elbaba became the first player in the program’s history to reach the final of a national tournament. Later that fall, though, she developed a stress fracture in her right shin, and the injury kept her from competing in November at the ITA indoor championships in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.

“It took me a solid three months to get back to practicing and playing 100 percent,” Elbaba recalled last week, and that might have contributed to the Cavaliers’ slow start this semester.

“To take three months off, it does a lot more than you do think,” Elbaba said. “Mentally and physically, you’re not 100 percent there. But I feel like I got it back now, and I’m glad I can help the team.

Elbaba was named the ACC women’s tennis player of the week Tuesday. She went 3-0 in singles against Duke, UNC and North Carolina Central and 2-0 in doubles — her partner is senior Hana Tomljanovic — against Duke and UNC.

“Tennis is pretty much a consistent day-in and day-out sport,” Guilbeau said, “and when you miss that time [as Elbaba did], it is tough. All I can say right now is the last few matches Julia has been at her highest level again, and that’s extremely positive and we’re very happy about that.”

Of the 10 players on the Cavaliers’ roster, three are seniors (Vierra, Tomljanovic and Maria Fuccillo), four are juniors (Caryssa Peretz, Li Xi, Marjorie Baker and Clare Spooner) and three are freshmen.

A season ago, Virginia advanced to the NCAA tournament’s third round before losing. The victory over North Carolina gives the `Hoos reason to believe a deeper postseason run might be coming.

“I just can’t give the kids more credit or be any happier for them,” Guilbeau said, “and I hope that we can continue to have a lot of happy moments like that.”

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