By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The teams seeded Nos. 1 and 2 in the NCAA women’s tournament, respectively, are Southern California and North Carolina.
Ninth-seeded Virginia has beaten both this season.
UVa knocked off USC 4-2 on Feb. 6 at the ITA National Indoors at the Boar’s Head Sports Club. In the ACC tournament semifinals, the Cavaliers ousted the Tar Heels 4-1 on April 25 in Cary, N.C.
“So we have full belief this year,” said junior Julia Elbaba, who plays No. 1 singles for Virginia, one of four ACC teams in the NCAA tourney’s Sweet Sixteen, along with UNC, Clemson and Miami.
In 2014, UVa defeated Baylor 4-1 in Athens, Ga., to advance to the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time in program history. Again this year, the Cavaliers (23-5) find themselves matched with the eighth-seeded Bears (27-6) in the tourney’s third round.
They’ll meet at 8 p.m. Friday, this time on Baylor’s home courts in Waco, Texas. The winner advances to face USC or No. 16 seed Texas Tech in Saturday’s quarterfinals.
“I think our team very much looks forward to that opportunity,” UVa head coach Mark Guilbeau said of the matchup with Baylor. “We feel almost blessed that it fell that way.”
The Wahoos flew to Waco on Tuesday, and for most members of the traveling party, this is their second visit to Baylor this season. On Jan. 24, the Cavaliers lost 6-1 to the Bears indoors in Waco.
Because of illness, however, UVa’s two top players, Elbaba and defending NCAA singles champion Danielle Collins, did not accompany the team to Waco for that match. The Cavaliers forfeited at Nos. 5 and 6 singles.
With a full complement of players, the `Hoos have won eight straight matches, a run that includes a 4-0 victory over Georgia Tech for the ACC championship. Is Guilbeau’s team playing its best tennis of the season?
“I think over the last stretch of about eight matches, definitely that’s the case,” he said. “Like with any team, it’s day to day.”
Guilbeau scheduled the early-season match in Waco to help the Cavaliers prepare for a possible return trip in May. “This was part of a process,” he said.
The first match with Baylor, however one-sided it may have been, provided Guilbeau and associate head coach Troy Porco with valuable information.
“We saw maybe a [Baylor] player or two that we hadn’t seen before,” Guilbeau said. “I’ve played that match over in my head a few times.”
Junior Skylar Morton, who began her college career at UCLA, and freshman Cassie Mercer joined UVa’s program at the start of the 2014-15 academic year. But Guilbeau’s other starters — juniors Elbaba, Collins, Stephanie Nauta and Maci Epstein — played key roles for the Cavaliers last season, too.
“I think it helps a lot,” Elbaba said of the collective experience, “and it’s really exciting that we’re going to play Baylor now, under the lights. They’re going to have a home crowd, but we thrive with that stuff, playing when people are cheering against us. We like that. We have each other, and that’s really all we need. We have our fans, our families and our coaches, of course. We’re really excited.”
UVa’s probable singles lineup consists of Elbaba at No. 1, Collins at No. 2, Nauta at No. 3, Morton at No. 4, Epstein at No. 5, and Mercer at No. 6.
In doubles, Elbaba and Morton play No. 1, Nauta and Mercer play No. 2, and Collins and Epstein play No. 3.
Virginia opened the NCAA tournament with a 4-0 win over VCU at the Snyder Tennis Center on Saturday. Its second-round match, a 4-2 victory over South Carolina, was fiercely contested. Guilbeau expected as much.
“There was no way we weren’t going to be tested,” he said. “South Carolina is a very, very good team.”
After the team championship is decided — the final is set for Tuesday at 6 p.m. — Elbaba, Collins and Nauta will compete in the NCAA singles tournament in Waco. Elbaba is seeded No. 6. Collins is among the players whose seeds are listed as 9-16.
For now, though, the Cavaliers’ focus is on the team tournament.
“We’ve had some great practices and great matches, so we’re really confident,” Elbaba said. “We know now, more than last year, that we do have the belief. We believe in each other that we can make to that last step and even win the whole thing.”
Guilbeau said: “Just simply from a desire and expectation standpoint, I know that the leaders of our team won’t be satisfied unless we play an incredibly good match.
“It’s a good focus right now. It’s one match at a time. It’s not getting ahead, but it’s also drawing on the good things that have happened.”