After two seasons of sub-.500 finishes, the women’s tennis team capped a breakout season with a history-clinching rally.
Wrapping up the regular season with 18 wins, the squad dropped its first three matches to Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference championships last Wednesday, and nearly said goodbye to the prospect of reaching a single-season mark of 19 wins.
Stuck in that three-point deficit, the Owls rallied off four straight singles wins from freshmen Alina Abdurakhimova, Monet Stuckey-Willis, Yana Khon and sophomore Anais Nussaume. They went on to win 4-3, in turn, breaking the school record for wins in a season set by Temple teams in 1987 and 1989.
“I am really happy for our girls,” senior Rebecca Breland said. “We worked really hard for this, and we came together for this. This is a true team record. As a team, we wanted to be around each other and I felt that this year we were all about the team atmosphere … we worked our butts off.”
A team consisting of seven underclassmen and three upperclassmen reeled off seven consecutive victories to break the 27-year-old record.
The Owls start five underclassmen in singles, while its Top 3 players, statistically, are freshmen.
“To have the most wins in a Temple women’s tennis season is a great accomplishment,” coach Steve Mauro said. “Breaking the record with a lineup that consists mostly of underclassmen is remarkable. This just shows that there are good things to come from this program.”
The main reason for the team’s success this season comes from Mauro’s recruiting class of Stuckey-Willis, Abdurakhimova and Khon. The freshman trio has amassed a 56-20 record in singles this season and posted a combined doubles record of 30-17.
“I would say [Khon, Abdurakhimova and Stuckey-Willis] were the backbone of our team this season,” Mauro said. “For next year, having them a year older, and with a full season under their belts, bodes well for our team. I feel that next year we can be a better team in our conference.”
Mauro’s squad didn’t lose back-to-back matches all season, and had two separate winning streaks of six or more matches, the latter being the seven-game run that ended with a season-ending loss to No. 2-seeded Tulane in a second-round conference-tournament matchup.
“We had strong team chemistry,” Mauro said. “All of the girls enjoyed being around one another whether it was at team meals or community service. When you are enjoying one another’s company, it makes for a better atmosphere. I believe that is another reason for achieving 19 wins, because if the team is unhappy, then you won’t play well together.”
The women’s team is expected to return all players from this season excluding Breland, who will graduate in May.
As the year comes to a close, Stuckey-Willis said the team’s historic season represented its willingness to take a chance.
“This season could be described as an ambitious season,” Stuckey-Willis said. “Everyone wanted to perform at their best and I think that we did that. Everyone wanted to improve during the season and we did.”
The Owls finished with a 19-7 record (1-5 The American). While the team struggled in conference play this season, Mauro said the trials his team faced during its conference schedule could spark an improvement for next season.
“I think now we feel that we can compete with any of our conference opponents now after two seasons in The American,” Mauro said. “I think a year’s more experience for our freshmen will make a huge difference because they now know what it takes to win. They have improved so much this season and we are looking forward to next year. We can be a special team next season.”
The men’s team, meanwhile, finished the season with a 15-10 record, but struggled against stiff competition, posting a 2-9 record against nationally ranked and conference opponents.
Unlike the women’s squad, the men’s team consists of seven upperclassmen and four underclassmen. The Owls will return all players except for senior Hernan Vasconez, who missed the spring semester due to injury.
The Owls finished the season at 8-0 on their home courts, but struggled on the road, compiling an 7-10 record away from home against teams like No. 21-ranked South Florida and No. 49 Memphis.
In the future, players are looking to use this year’s conference tournament as a stepping stone.
“The experience that the guys have after playing against a lot of tough competition will help,” Mauro said. “In the past we never really played top ranked teams and in some years we didn’t play any. We are giving the guys the opportunity to play against the best players in the country and hopefully they will want to improve to compete better.”
Dalton Balthaser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DaltonBalthaser.