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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

ND Women's Tennis: Irish have eyes set on NCAA Final Four spot

Coming into the season, No. 20 Notre Dame had two goals: win the Big East championship and, like last season, make a run at the Final Four and a possible national championship. After this weekend's title win, the Irish are halfway there.

With a 5-2 victory over South Florida in the Big East championship match Sunday at home at the Courtney Tennis Center, the Irish captured their fourth straight conference championship. Tuesday, they earned a berth in the national championships in Palo Alto, Calif.

"We are really excited for the NCAAs to begin," Irish junior Shannon Mathews said. "Coming off the Big East tournament we are really happy with our doubles performances."

Directly in their path to the semifinals is the team that ended their dreams of winning the national title last season. No. 1 Stanford is undefeated and hosts the tournament as the odds-on favorite to take it all. If the Irish want to make it as far as they did last season, they will have to knock off the Cardinals in the third round. Their task begins against Fresno State.

"We know that Fresno State is going to be a tough first round match for us," Mathews said. "We hope we have the opportunity to get some revenge on Northwestern who beat us."

The Bulldogs are 11-13 coming into the tournament, but play in the perennially brutal Pac-10 conference.

"We are excited to play Fresno State in the first round," Irish sophomore Chrissie McGaffigan said. "Northwestern and IPFW are also in our bracket and are both tough."

Although Notre Dame's season has gone according to plan so far — a solid regular season, a Big East title and an NCAA tournament berth — the Irish have not been without their fair share of adversity this season.

In the heart of its regular season schedule, Notre Dame dropped three straight to Baylor, USF and Duke. The Irish could have collapsed and let their season slip through their hands. Instead, Notre Dame battled back and ended the season with five straight wins, seeking vengeance against the Bulls Sunday to take the conference crown.

"We are continuing to work hard on things the coaches want us to focus on," McGaffigan said. "We are playing stronger with every match and are peaking at just the right time."

A strong corps of veterans including juniors Kristy Frilling and Mathews and senior Kristen Rafael have led the Irish all season. Frilling, the No. 4 singles player in the country, played the entire season at No. 1 singles and did not disappoint. She went 26-5 overall this season and has 84 career victories. Mathews, named the Big East tournament Most Outstanding Player, is similarly strong in her spot at No. 2 singles, going 5-1 in conference play. Mathews has also won her last five starts. Rafael, the lone senior on the squad, went 11-9 in the duals season, earned 67 career victories and won her last six decisions.

With an unusually high number of freshmen on the team, veteran leadership has been a key to Notre Dame's success.

Yet that does not mean freshmen have not contributed as well. Jennifer Kellner has excelled in her first season with the Irish, going 24-5 overall, as she spent most of the season at No. 3 singles.

Doubles has also been a strong point for the balanced Irish squad this season. Overall, the Irish were 64-35 in doubles. Mathews said going into the singles portion with a lead is always positive.

"We hope to continue to build on this momentum in doubles as well as the competitive nature we all demonstrated in our singles play," Mathews said.

With 64 teams in the NCAA championship bracket, the task can seem daunting. But ultimately it comes down to being the better team on any given day, Mathews said.

"We just want to take the NCAAs one match at a time," she said. "There are many great teams in the draw, but we are peaking at the right time."

The NCAA championships get underway May 13 and run until the national championship in Palo Alto, Calif., on May 24. Notre Dame's first matchup is against Fresno State May 13 in Evanston, Ill.