By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s National Women’s Indoor Team Championships are under way at the Boar’s Head Sports Club, and nobody can accuse the host school of getting an easy draw.
In its first match, Friday at 6:30 p.m. UVa (3-0) faces the No. 1 seed in the 16-team tournament: Florida (4-0). The Cavaliers are No. 14 in the latest ITA rankings; the Gators, No. 2.
“It’s what it is,” Virginia coach Mark Guilbeau said Thursday. “It’s a great, great opportunity. We know Florida’s a traditionally powerhouse team and they’ve done unbelievably good things. But it comes down to six against six, and no one’s better because they’re wearing a certain name on their shirt. It’s something we talk about a lot.”
To say this tourney field is loaded would be an understatement. Top-ranked Stanford declined an invitation to participate, but Nos. 2-17 in the latest ITA rankings are represented at the Boar’s Head.
“Every team, every player, is at the top level,” Virginia sophomore Julia Elbaba said Thursday. “Everybody wants it equally bad, and it’s a big, big fight on each court.”
This marks the fourth consecutive year UVa has hosted the ITA National Indoors. Each team is guaranteed three matches during the tournament, which runs through Monday. There is no admission charge for fans.
“We’re very, very happy to have had [three] great years, and we want to make this fourth year the best yet,” Guilbeau said. “As always, it takes a lot to be able to host this one year, much less for a good four-year period, and we greatly appreciate our support from donors, UVa and the Boar’s Head.”
A year ago, the Wahoos went 0-3 at tournament, which was “a reality check,” Elbaba said Thursday. “This year we really know what to expect, and considering a big chunk of our team is sophomores, we’re going in with a little more experience. I think it’ll help us out.”
Their showing at last year’s ITA National Indoors did not derail the Cavaliers’ season. They finished the regular season tied for second in the ACC and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 for the third consecutive year.
From that team Guilbeau returned five players who were in the regular rotation: seniors Caryssa Peretz and Li Xi and sophomores Stephanie Nauta, Maci Epstein and Elbaba. The newcomers are freshmen Marie Faure and Rachel Pierson and sophomore Danielle Collins, a transfer from Florida.
That Collins would face her former team at some point, Guilbeau said, was inevitable, and he’s talked to her about it. It’s no big deal, he said.
“You know how the small world of tennis works,” Guilbeau said. “You end up running into people. ”
Elbaba, the reigning ACC player of the week, is ranked No. 11 nationally in singles. Collins is No. 28, Pierson No. 43 and Nauta No. 85. In doubles, Elbaba and Pierson are ranked No. 8.
“We have a lot of depth throughout the team,” Elbaba said. “Our 1 through 6, even 1 through 8, is very strong, and everyone can play real well. So I’m liking our chances to do well here.”
Guilbeau said: “The bottom line is, and I’ve said this a thousand times to the team, we’re trying to have eight great players. The only way we’re going to be a good team is if we have eight great players — not five, not six and certainly not just our top three. I like that they’re trying to grab onto that and improve our depth.”
This is Guilbeau’s ninth season at Virginia, and his latest team has the potential to be his best. But to reach its potential, he said, the group must try to match — or surpass — the work ethic of some of its recent predecessors, especially the team that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 in 2011.
“I’m trying to get this team to have that same kind of hunger,” Guilbeau said, “and when I say hunger, I’m talking about everything that leads to getting things done: the behaviors, the desires, the habits, the practice day in and day out. The things you do when people aren’t watching. And it’s going to be hard to match that team from three years ago. I’m trying to teach this team that they should expect to push themselves very hard.”
He likes what he’s seen so far. His players came back to school in superb physical condition last month, Guilbeau said, and he’s optimistic about the Cavaliers’ chances at the ITA National Indoors.
“We’re really hoping to start with one match and win that first match,” he said. “I know it’s Florida. I know they’re the 1 seed, but it’s going to be three doubles courts and six singles courts, and I know we have a team that can compete. It would take a very good effort from another team to beat us.
“So we’re hoping to win this first match, and that really could open up an unbelievable opportunity for us beyond.”
Live online video is available for all matches played on the Boyd Tinsley Courts at the Boar’s Head Sports Club, including every UVa match. Fans can access the live video for free at VirginiaSports.com/allaccess.
Live stats for the event can be found at VirginiaSports.com. Fans can visit ITATennis.com for more information.