Coming back from the brink of a complete catastrophe, Temple’s women’s tennis team won three straight matches over Duquense, Richmond and Massachusetts, to win its first Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament and gain a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Temple will play the No. 14 seed William & Mary between May 9-11. The Owls defeated their opponents 4-1, 4-3 and 4-1, respectively.
Before Temple’s surprise tournament run, the Owls hit a pothole earlier in the season when they lost star player Lara Ercegovic to a season-ending knee injury.
The injury occurred during spring break when the team was in California competing in the San Diego Invitational.
On the second day of practice for the Invitational, Ercegovic landed on her knee and was taken to a nearby hospital.
At the A-10 Championships, No. 1 singles player Danira Penic and No. 2 singles Mia Morovic both notched wins while No. 4 Lauren Verrall and No. 6 Laura Seiverling won their matches to seal the win against the Minutewomen and clinch the team title.
Head coach Tracy Tooke had complete faith that her team would win, having already seen them succeed in the face of great adversity.
“Just by looking at them, [you could tell that] there was not a doubt in their minds that they were going to win the tournament,” Tooke said.
Also, this past Monday, Penic was named the A-10 Most Outstanding Women’s Tennis Performer and Marovic earned the Most Outstanding Rookie Performer award.
Penic, who missed last year’s A-10 Tournament due to an injury, felt confident throughout the competition.
Her motivation: Don’t lose. A simple but efficient approach.
Penic believes capturing the A-10 title will bring more recognition to the team.
“Many people at Temple didn’t even know we had a tennis team.” she said.
“We proved that not only do we have a tennis team, but we have a very good tennis team.”
With the NCAA Tournament almost a week away, Tooke and the Owls will continue the intense training they’ve followed throughout the season.
“They’re going to be psyched and go in there with the intention of winning,” Tooke said.
This will be Tooke’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament, and she is bringing mixed feelings to it.
While proud of her team triumphs, she is still wary of going into the tournament without her big player.
“Without Lara . . .it’s going to be tough,” Tooke said.
When Ercegovic went down, her teammates anxiously awaited the doctor’s prognosis in a grim hospital atmosphere.
“We were all depressed that day because we knew it was going to be a while before she could come back,” Penic said.
Then the news finally came: Ercegovic had dislocated her kneecap and would have to sit on the bench for the remainder of the season.
“When we heard she wasn’t going to be able to play for the rest of the season,” Penic said, “we realized that we would have to deal with that.”
To make matters worse, Penic fell to a foot injury and freshman Ana Meslasa developed foot blisters later on that week.
While both injuries were not season-ending, they would cause both players to miss three weeks on the courts.
The Owls’ small team of seven eventually dropped to a quartet of underclassmen – all within the span of one week.
In the weeks that followed, the Owls bad luck continued as they would drop three straight matches to Pennsylvania, Xavier and Princeton.
Losing three players put Tooke and her team in a vulnerable position.
“We had to go and compete against some good teams and got beat,” Tooke said. “It was pretty demoralizing.”
Tooke saw potential in the Owls’ losses, however, and said that waiting for the return of her captain and No. 3 player had a positive effect on her team.
“The team really turned a tough, tough, discouraging situation around and used it to make them stronger,” Tooke said.
“By the time we got [Danira and Ana] back, it felt like we had an army.”
Steve Papurt can be reached at email@example.com.