Blue Demons Looking to Finish Strong After Record Start
April 15, 2014
CHICAGO – The only thing better than the fastest start would be the best finish ever.
That’s exactly what the DePaul women’s tennis team has in mind after breaking out to the best start in program history that included 16 wins in a row.
After opening the season on the last weekend in January with a win over No. 68 San Jose State followed by a loss at No. 7 Texas A&M, the Blue Demons went on that sweet 16 run that featured victories over No. 25 TCU, No. 65 Louisville and No. 72 Oregon.
They also came away with 10 shutouts in going more than two months without a loss. DePaul climbed as high as No. 25 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) national poll and is No. 40 in this week’s rankings.
“I thought back then if we win against TCU and Louisville that we could go on a really long winning streak,” said women’s tennis coach Mark Ardizzone. “I was happy with how we managed our bad days and squeaked through and were dominant against teams we should have beaten.”
The winning streak was snapped on April 5 after a 6-1 loss to No. 26 Rice. The next day, No. 33 Houston topped DePaul 4-2.
"To me, losing those matches was a good thing,” Ardizzone said. “My biggest fear is that we have not been in a lot of hard-fought matches, and we’d get a little tight when that happened. This was good for the team, and it reinvigorated us.
“It’s different for us to be the hunted and not the hunter. Everyone is waiting to give us their best game, hit us with their best punch. This will get us really charged up for the final weeks of the season.”
Three days after Ardizzone spoke those words, DePaul (18-3, 3-0 in the BIG EAST Conference) knocked off Cincinnati 6-1 behind singles wins from Ana Vladutu, Patricia Fargas, Kelsey Lawson, Zaina Sufi and Rebeca Mitrea.
The Blue Demons have been dominant in BIG EAST play. Heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale against Marquette at Lakeshore Sport & Fitness, they have won their conference matches by a combined score of 21-0. Beating Marquette will make them the No. 1 seed in the BIG EAST Championships April 24-27 in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
“We’ve gone undefeated in the BIG EAST and had some message-sending matches,” Ardizzone said. “I’m a little surprised we’ve done all this with only six players who have embraced the challenge of having to play every match. We lost a couple players to injuries including Jarret Fisher, the MVP of the team from last season.
“Doug Bruno nicknamed his women’s basketball team the Magnificent Seven a few years ago when there were only seven healthy players. Just call us the Sensational Six. They play when they’re sick, banged up or hurt. They’re showing each other how much they care about the team.
“A wounded team sometimes is a dangerous team. Everyone steps up because there isn’t as much margin for error. Even though our No. 1 player from last year didn’t return and then we also lost Jarret, it shows what team chemistry can do.”
Ardizzone had an inkling of what was to come back in early November.
“At the end of the fall season, I told graduate assistant coach Kata Szekely I felt this team had a chance to be something special,” Ardizzone said. “I attribute our fast start to team chemistry and that these young ladies are really in it together.
"I compare this group to the 2009-10 team that earned our first bid to the NCAA tournament. The spring of 2010 was the most successful season we ever had. The players on that team were so focused, led by Anna Redecsi, Selma Salkovic and Katarina Milinkovic.”
The Blue Demons ranked as high as No. 21 that year and finished second at the BIG EAST tournament to No. 5 Notre Dame. They were No. 30 going into the NCAA tournament where DePaul fell to Ohio State. That Ardizzone team finished with an 18-6 record.
Doubles partners Redecsi and Salkovic became the only Blue Demon tandem to receive an NCAA at-large bid. They defeated the College of Charleston duo in the opening round and lost to No. 1 Tennessee in the round of 16.
“This year’s team doesn’t have as much natural talent as the 2010 team, but they just practice so hard,” Ardizzone said. “Our top three---Patricia, Ana and Jasmin (Kling)---can play with anyone in the country.
“And, our four, five and six players have been a big, pleasant surprise. Kelsey, Zaina and Rebeca have a combined record of 51-7.
“Those three have been so competitive and so solid. I did not think they would be as good as they’ve been this season.
“You need four points to win a match, and all schools have a solid top three. Our next three has really come through for us and helped us get those four points.”
Lawson is finishing up her career on a high note. The senior from Tempe, Ariz. notched her 100th career win on April 6 with a 7-5, 7-6 decision over Maria Andrea Cardenas at Houston.
Lawson was 27-15 as a freshman, 21-15 as a sophomore, 28-11 last season and is 25-9 this season for an overall record of 101-50 going into the regular-season finale against Marquette on Saturday that will be followed by the BIG EAST tournament and potentially the NCAA tournament.
“It’s pretty amazing for Kelsey to win that many matches, averaging 25 wins a year,” Ardizzone said. “We celebrated the 100 wins last Sunday at Kelsey’s Senior Day ceremony.”
She is only the third player in program history to reach the century mark. Nives Milosevic finished her career in 1999 with 105 wins, and that same year, classmate Klara Salopek bowed out with 102.
“Nives and Klara both live in the area and are married to former DePaul men’s tennis players,” Ardizzone said. “Klara said she would like attend the Marquette match to see Kelsey win No. 102 and Nives told me she hopes Kelsey is able to break her record.”
Lawson and her teammates are gearing up for a big finish.
“We want to win the BIG EAST Tennis Championship and the automatic berth into the NCAA tournament,” Ardizzone said. “We’d like to be top five in the Midwest and a top 40 NCAA team. The players have a goal of attaining the highest team GPA in program history, and their 3.85 GPA last quarter was the highest at DePaul for any team.”
Ardizzone left unspoken the piece de resistance---becoming the first Blue Demon women’s tennis team to advance in the NCAA tournament.
What a finish that would be to the best start in program history.