In Temple’s final strength-training session before the American Athletic Conference tournament, the team lifted weights in unison.
All except junior Monet Stuckey-Willis, who walked in from the hallway as the team finished up and began stretching. The Owls’ second-flight singles player suffered a shoulder injury in practice and couldn’t join the team.
She didn’t play on Friday against Binghamton University or on Saturday against George Washington University, but she should be ready for the conference tournament, coach Steve Mauro said.
Her injury is one of several the Owls (11-12, 1-3 The American) have dealt with this year. Now, as the team prepares to travel to Orlando, Florida for the conference tournament starting Wednesday against South Florida, having everyone healthy is vital for Temple to have a shot at winning.
“I think if we’re all healthy we can do great things in the tournament,” Mauro said. “It’s just a matter of being healthy for the first match.”
Temple needs to win The American’s tournament in order to advance to the NCAA tournament. Last year, the Owls fell in the first round to Cincinnati.
“Our conference is pretty tough,” Mauro said. “But I feel regardless of who we play, we have a good shot of winning. If our girls play well and really want it, we’ll get the wins.”
Temple has endured a back-and-forth season marred by injuries. The team is 5-1 at home and 6-2 in neutral site matches. The Owls, however, are winless on the road, finishing with an 0-9 regular-season away record.
Thirteen matches into the season, the Owls held an 8-5 record with key wins against Iowa State University and conference rival Connecticut. Temple lost six of its next seven matches, including road losses to conference rivals Tulsa, South Florida and Cincinnati.
“This is actually one of the most talented teams that we’ve had at Temple,” said Mauro, who is in his eighth year coaching at Temple. “But the problem that we’ve had this year is a lot of little injuries.”
Graduate student Galina Chernykh missed more than two months after she injured her left Achilles tendon in the team’s first match against Old Dominion University on Jan. 14.
She returned to the lineup on March 16 against the University of Delaware but had trouble getting back to her usual level of play.
Two starters suffered injuries recently. Stuckey-Willis, who missed all fall tournaments with an injury, hurt her shoulder in practice last week. Senior Dina Karina, who has a 6-2 record in the fourth flight, suffered an undisclosed injury in practice last week. She played in both of the team’s final two regular-season matches after a week of lightly practicing.
“I think Dina will be back,” senior Anais Nussaume said. “Hopefully Monet will be as well. We really need Monet.”
Junior Alina Abdurakhimova has led the Owls all season with an 11-5 singles record in the top flight. Mauro said the team will “depend” on her in the tournament. She said constant changes in the lineup and doubles combinations have made the season difficult.
“Everybody’s got to be ready and everybody has to play their games,” Abdurakhimova said. “Everyone needs to know their strengths and weaknesses and get ready.”
The Owls lost 6-1 to South Florida (10-10, 3-2 The American) on March 26. Temple believes the result may be different on Wednesday if Karina, Stuckey-Willis and Chernykh are all at full health.
In addition, Mauro said this year’s team has the best chemistry of any he has previously coached. He said the road trip to Ohio, when the Owls played Miami University on March 31 and Cincinnati on April 1, brought the team together. He said his players rallied for each other in the two tight losses.
“I think it’s been a good season,” Mauro said. “You just don’t know what will happen with injuries, but the spirits are high, girls are getting along and I think this year’s group of girls has gotten along better with each other than any of my previous teams. In that respect, it’s been very successful.”
Graham Foley can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @graham_foley3.