Tennis looks to new faces, leaders; Illini off to 2-0 start

By Derek Barichello

There are many new faces on the 33rd-ranked Illini squad from last year.

Jennifer McGaffigan and Tiffany Eklov, who were instrumental to last year’s success, graduated, and Isabel Jarosz, who started at No. 3 singles, left the school – making way for seniors Cynthya Goulet and Leila Cehajic and junior Brianna Knue to step up and assume leadership.

Illini head coach Sujay Lama is already impressed with how Goulet, Cehajic and Knue have handled themselves.

“They are more vocal than ever,” Lama said. “They know their roles and they are staying positive with a young team.”

Goulet, who plays at the No. 1 spot in singles for the Illini and plays interchangeably at No. 1 and 2 for doubles, believes she can help the younger players on the team through her leadership.

“I have more experience and I lead a lot by example,” Goulet said. “I feel like everyone has been on the same page thus far and there have not been any issues to deal with yet.”

With five freshmen joining the team, her leadership will be important. The newcomers include Macall Harkins, Anastasia Sokolova and Momei Qu, who have all made an immediate impact. Both Harkins and Qu are 2-0 in singles play. Freshman Elizabeth Dolan suffered an injury in the fall and is red-shirting this season.

Freshman Alejandra Cuadra, who is from Argentina and became eligible last weekend, made her debut against Marquette and won her first collegiate singles match in three sets.

With the team chemistry already so strong, the freshmen feel comfortable on and off the court.

“We’re so close,” Sokolova said. “It made it easier to get to know the other girls on the team because we were like one unit. It helps because it creates a lot of energy on the court. We’re all teammates and you can feel that force from each other.”

Lama knew he was going to have a young team this season, so he scheduled the Illini to play most of their matches at home. The Illini play 14 of their 22 games at Atkins Tennis Center. Of those 14 home matches, seven of the opponents are currently ranked, highlighted by No. 30 Wake Forest on Friday, No. 18 Tennessee on Sunday, No. 29 Indiana on March 26, No. 20 Michigan on April 10 and No. 21 Notre Dame on April 13.

“With a young team, we have a lot of home matches, by design,” Lama said. “That will help them out. We also want to get in the mindset of thinking of matches in two game stints to stay focused.”

In the Illini’s first two matches of the season, they came away with victories. The Illini defeated Hawaii 6-1 on Jan. 15 and swept Marquette 7-0 last Saturday.

Although the Illini are off to a good start, Lama knows with a young team there are going to be some growing pains.

“There are going to be a few bumps on the road,” Lama said. “With the whole thing, winning or losing, we want to be growing. We have a dedicated group that is very team-oriented. I think when you have the character we have, it really expedites the process.”

Although the Illini have many new faces, they return sophomore Emily Wang, who notched a singles victory against Marquette, and junior Pavlina Akritas, who recorded a singles victory in Hawaii.

The Illini believe the strength of the team is in their doubles play. The Illini had two interchangeable No. 1 teams this fall – No. 54 Harkins and Knue and formerly No. 44-ranked Goulet and sophomore Emily Wang. The Illini are working with Qu and Sokolova at the No. 3 spot.

In each of their first two matches the Illini swept the doubles point and came away with wins.

In the last 14 times the Illini won the doubles point, they have won the match 13 out of the 14 times.

“We want to be aggressive with doubles,” Lama said. “We feel we have the personnel to do it. We have two good doubles teams, which is a good luxury to have. In years past we’ve had one set doubles team and have been looking for two to step up. I think that this year we have an advantage over a lot of teams that are still looking for two more doubles teams to step up.”

In singles the Illini feel they have a competitive lineup.

The Illini are led by No. 111 Goulet, who leads the team with an 11-4 record and is penciled in at the top singles spot.

“I feel really confident,” Goulet said. “Even though I know the matches will be a lot tougher, I am ready for it. I trust my teammates playing around me, so there is not any added pressure. It is only one point, whether I play at the No. 1 spot or not.”

Harkins is likely to play at the No. 2 seed. The rest of the singles lineup is not set. Qu has played well at the No. 3 spot and Knue has played well at No. 4, but Lama has shuffled Wang, Akritas, Cuadra and Sokolova at the bottom of the lineup, demonstrating the Illini’s depth.

“We match up well at every position,” Goulet said. “It takes a lot of pressure off you when you are in your match; all of us teammates have trust in each other.”

If everything goes right this season, the Illini believe they have the potential to take the program to the next level.

“We want to peak towards the end of the season,” Lama said. “We want to take this program to the next level and how you do that is doing well at the NCAA Tournament. We also want to be in a position to win the Big Ten championship.”