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Illinois women’s tennis fails to make NCAA tournament

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Illinois'  Louise Kwong returns the ball during the match against DePaul at the Atkins Tennis Center on February 19.

Illinois' Louise Kwong returns the ball during the match against DePaul at the Atkins Tennis Center on February 19.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois' Louise Kwong returns the ball during the match against DePaul at the Atkins Tennis Center on February 19.

Christian Evans, Staff writer

The Illinois women’s tennis team had high expectations in 2017 after having its best season since 2012 last year.

In the beginning of the spring season, the team did not live up to those expectations, starting off 3-8.

After losing to Oklahoma in Feb. 26, head coach Evan Clark said the team worked toward improving its energy in order to win matches.

“We have been focusing on just getting the energy right,” Clark said. “Always moving, bouncing around, and if we do not win the point, we come together so we do not become flat-footed.”

Illinois followed up the Oklahoma loss with a 4-0 win over Florida State, and from that point forward, the team started to win matches and build confidence.

While the Illini lost the next match against Texas Tech and fell to 4-9 , they won the next five matches to improve to .500.

One of those wins came in a 5-2 victory against Maryland, a match that Clark said the team executed very well.

“We have gotten some confidence,” Clark said. “Against Maryland, we played the big points well and were able to win some really key third sets, which has been the difference in us not winning some matches in the past.”

In that match, sophomore Daniela Pedraza Novak lost her first set 6-7 against Maryland’s Cassandre Thebault, but recovered 6-3, 6-4 to win it.

Novak said she gained the ability to have a short memory in that match, helping her and the team going forward.

“I have done better fighting my way through tough matches,” Novak said. “It is really tough mentally to come back and reset after losing, but I am getting better at forgetting about what happened and starting from zero.”

After its match against Southern Illinois, which Illinois won 4-0, Illinois started conference play on the road. The Illini won three of their first four conference matches to improve to 11-10.

This gave the team momentum before its match against a top-five team in the nation: Ohio State.

While the Illini lost to the Buckeyes 0-7, they learned from that match. Clark said they cannot afford to play passively against quality teams.

“We will have to play the big points better than we have against some of the top teams this year,” Clark said. “A lot of that is mental and how you approach it, so we have to go after it a little more and not be scared to be aggressive.”

Illinois stepped up in its final matches, winning two of its last three to finish the regular season at 13-12.

The Illini earned themselves a No. 4 seed in the Big Ten tournament and a date with conference No. 5 seed Maryland. Illinois won the match 4-2 to advance to the semis to face No. 1 seed Ohio State.

While Illinois again lost to Ohio State, it closed the margin of defeat from its first meeting, this time falling 3-4.

That match against the Buckeyes concluded the year for the Illini. In the final ITA women’s rankings, the Illini were No. 50. Senior Alexis Casati was ranked at No. 122 in the nation for singles.

Senior Louise Kwong also made the All Big-Ten team for the second year in a row.

While the Illini will lose key contributors next year in both Kwong and Casati, along with Madie Baillon and Jerricka Boone, they have a strong recruiting class that may help fill the void.

As of January, the Illini had the No. 8 recruiting class with Asuka Kawai, Alexandra Belaya, and Mia Rabinowitz all being ranked within the top 35 in the nation.

In April, Illinois also added Emilee Duong to its recruiting class, who is also ranked among the top 35.

clevans2@dailyillini.com

@cevans619

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