2014 Women's Tennis Season Preview
Jan. 17, 2014
HOUSTON--- Excitement, optimism, and growth are just a few words to describe the feelings of the Houston Cougar Tennis program as it enters the new 2014 campaign under second year head coach Patrick Sullivan.
"It's hard to have concrete expectations when it comes to rankings and things like that, because a lot of that depends on how your opponents do and things that are out of our control, but I do think this team is talented enough to make the NCAA Tournament this year," said Sullivan. "The goal this season is to win the conference, but we truly believe we're good enough to qualify for postseason play as an at-large team as well."
The expectations are high for the Cougars, as it aims to return to the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in school history and for the first time since 1998. But while the goal is lofty, it certainly isn't out of reach, as Houston is expected to run out one of its best squads in recent memory.
It returns six letterwinners from last year's team and a crop of newcomers that as a whole was ranked as the top recruiting class among mid-majors and the sixth best overall for 2013, in freshman Despoina Vogasari, freshman Tina Rupert, and sophomore Maria Andrea Cardenas.
"Obviously I'm really excited for our newcomers, but I'm just as excited about our returners too," said Sullivan. "They've bought into having better work ethic and a positive attitude. Now when you add a bunch of new talent to an already great group of returners, then yeah, it's a pretty exciting time to be a Houston Cougar."
Returners Celia Fraser, Jo Garvey, Elena Kordolaimi, Charlotte Phillips, Rocio Martin Fernandez and Dionne Sanders guided the Cougars to the program's 11th consecutive winning season a year ago, as the team went 13-11 overall, including posting an 8-4 home mark in its final year as a member of Conference USA.
Senior Celia Fraser returns for her fourth and final year as a member of the Cougar tennis team, and looks to be one of the main leaders on and off the court once again in 2014, after posting a combined spring record of 25-11, while going 10-8 in the No. 2 singles position in dual play last year.
Dionne Sanders also comes back for her senior season, as she sported a perfect 5-0 record at the No 5 position last season, while beginning the 2013 season with four consecutive victories. The Stourbridge, U.K. native also went an impressive 12-8 last year during singles play.
Juniors Rocio Martin Fernandez and Elena Kordolaimi are both in line for breakout seasons in 2014 after each posted superb sophomore campaigns, as Fernandez ranked second on the squad with a 14-8 record in singles play, including posting victories in eight of her first 10 matches.
Kordolaimi saw similar success, earning Conference USA Singles Second-Team honors in her first season at Houston after posting a 13-10 record at the No. 1 spot in dual play. She also concluded the season on a three-match win streak.
The Lamia, Greece native also ended the 2013 fall season with some positive momentum, as she claimed the flight two singles championship on Nov. 3 at the Cougar Classic, after defeating Arkansas' Shannon Hudson in consecutive sets (6-3, 6-3). Kordolaimi went 3-0 in singles competition during the classic without dropping a single set.
Junior Charlotte Phillips also enters the new season looking to improve upon a sophomore season that saw her post a career-high 12 wins during dual play, while senior Jo Garvey also posted a winning mark of 14-13 last season during dual match action.
When it's all said and done, the trio of sophomore Maria Andrea Cardenas (Venezuela), freshman Despoina Vogasari (Greece), and freshman Tina Rupert (Slovenia), could go down as one of the best signing classes in Houston Tennis history. All three currently play for their respective country's national team, as the trio makes up what was named as the top recruiting class among mid-majors a year ago.
Cardenas comes to Houston from the University of Auburn where she compiled an overall record of 20-8 during her freshman year, while she went a perfect 7-0 in singles and doubles dual match play. She also boasts over 100 career victories on the international circuit and claimed the flight three singles championship last November at the Cougar Classic, after going 3-0 on the weekend without dropping a single set.
Vogasari enters her freshman season with an equally impressive resume, as she represents the highest ranked athlete to ever sign with the Cougars. She has claimed three professional singles and doubles championships. She's also reached the finals on seven separate occasions while competing as an amateur over the last three years.
Despite her freshman status, Rupert comes to Houston as already one of the more fundamentally sound players on the squad, according to coach Sullivan. She also joins the Cougars as just the second left-handed player on the team.
Along with Vogasari, she's competed for her national team in the prestigious Federation Cup. Cardenas is also slated to compete in the upcoming Federation Cup this February.
The 2014 schedule will undoubtedly be one of the more rigorous slates in program history, as the Cougars will play eight nationally ranked opponents in No. 60 North Texas (Feb. 8), at No. 45 Washington (Feb. 23), at No. 17 Texas (Feb. 28), No. 28 Tulsa (March 1), at No. 58 Utah (March 12), at No. 52 SMU (March 22), at No. 68 Harvard (March 30), and at No. 40 William and Mary (April 11).
The Cougars will also go up against four schools that qualified for the NCAA Tournament a year ago in Texas, Tulsa, North Texas, and William and Mary.
But for as tough as the slate is for the Cougars, the task will be far from impossible, as Houston will host a school-record 16 home matches in 2014, including seven in a row to begin the season.
"The home schedule obviously should be very beneficial for us this season," said Sullivan. "We paid our dues last season, going on the road and playing some tough teams. Now we get to see if we can hopefully take advantage, getting some of those teams at home this year."
The Cougars will welcome in UTSA (Jan. 24), New Mexico (Jan. 26), Southern Miss (Jan. 31), Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (Feb. 2), North Texas (Feb. 8), Kansas (Feb. 14), and Mississippi State (Feb. 16) to begin the year.
Houston will then begin a stretch where three of the next four contests will come against three preseason ranked opponents, at No. 45 Washington on Feb. 23, at No. 17 Texas on Feb. 28 (NCAA Tournament second round participant), and vs. No. 28 Tulsa on March 1 (NCAA first round participant).
With the Tulsa match begins a four-match homestand for the Cougars, in what will be the second-longest home stretch of the season, which concludes with a March 8 contest vs. fellow conference rival Connecticut before the team makes a trip to Salt Lake City to take on the University of Utah, who is currently ranked No. 58 in the country.
The Cougars will round out the season playing five of their final nine matches at home, including three against preseason ranked squads in intrastate rival No. 52 SMU (March 22), at No. 68 Harvard (March 30), and at No. 40 William and Mary (April 11).
The inaugural American Athletic Conference championship tournament will take place April 17- 20th in Tampa, Fla.