Pair of freshmen key to Illinois women’s tennis

Freshmen Breanne Smutko and Rachael White carry a chip on their shoulders — a blue one, in fact.

They comprise the best recruiting class for the Illinois women’s tennis team since … ever. Coming out of high school, the two were blue-chip recruits — one tier above a five-star.

Seven matches into the season, Illinois is nearing the heart of the dual season with No. 15 Notre Dame and No. 3 Northwestern on the schedule in the next two weeks. It’s in these coming weeks that Smutko and White will be looked upon to mature and add a punch into the lineup to assist the No. 29 Illini in what they hope will be a breakthrough season.

The freshmen’s collegiate tennis education began with an early beating to start the season. The Illini played their first four matches on the road against ranked opponents, starting 1-3.

In head coach Michelle Dasso’s mind, the hardest part for Smutko and White wasn’t necessarily experiencing the pressure of collegiate tennis or feeling weary from traveling during the first two weeks. Rather, it had to do with the rest of college life.

“It was more of getting adjusted to being away from home and from school and living in the dorms just like a normal college student,” Dasso said.

Each freshman has gone through two roommates in the dorms and has had to deal with returning from road trips as late as 4 a.m., with classes hours away.

“At the beginning of the semester, we were gone so much,” said Smutko, an Alpharetta, Ga., native. “We missed practically the first two weeks of school. We got stuck in Atlanta on a flight, so it’s very stressful constantly missing classes and always being behind on work. It sucks, but you got to do it on the bus or in the hotel.”

As a general engineering major, Smutko feels the pull on both sides as a student and an athlete. And part of that adjustment requires spending more than the required 10 hours per week at the Irwin Academic Center, sacrificing sleep and managing every speck of her time.

“I’ve been taking a lot of hard classes in high school, like seven AP’s in high school, so I’ve learned through previous experiences how to balance,” said Smutko, who was also contemplating about attending an Ivy League school. “I can’t get much sleep, but I’ve learned to just live with that.”

Though White isn’t experiencing a similar academic toll, she is becoming more aware of the target she has on her back, as she debuted at No. 33 in the national singles rankings.

“Everything was really new to me, so I didn’t really feel any pressure ‘cause I didn’t know anyone, so I just kind of went out there and played,” said the Deerfield, Ill., native. “But I think now I’m starting to feel a little more of the pressure, since I do know a couple more girls and how good they are and to be able to step it up for basically every match because everyone is good at this level.”

The challenge of playing at the No. 1 singles spot can be frustrating. Though White lost her first five singles matches in dual play, Dasso constantly leaves a reminder that White is a freshman taking on the toughest players in the country.

“For Rachael, I’ve learned how truly competitive she is,” Dasso said. “She’s a very bright tennis player. She understands the game. And people don’t realize how much she really wants it.”

For her part, Smutko is awfully competitive as well.

“I’ve realized how hard (Breanne) is on herself,” Dasso said. “She’s very tough on herself, and I think that it sometimes gets in the way of her game. Really working on being positive with her and getting away from that perfectionist personality that she kind of has.”

The freshmen chose Illinois and have made strong contributions early in the season. For White, it’s her razor-sharp serves and hard shots that have made her opponents cringe, and she has won her last two matches. Smutko has proved to be a consistent base at Nos. 4 and 5 singles, where she is 3-2. Smutko also pairs with senior Megan Fudge in doubles play, and the two already appear to be an established tandem, holding a 3-1 record.

White and Smutko picked Illinois over top-25 schools such as Tennessee, Florida State, Clemson and Arizona State, where they may not have played as large of roles as they do for the Illini.

“Pretty much, I was looking at all warm-weather schools, except for here,” White said. “I found that I just really got along with the team well here, and I knew a couple of the girls on the team, and I really liked them. I felt the most comfortable at the school, and I think that’s what really mattered most to me.”

“The girls here are awesome, the campus is pretty, engineering is top, Atkins is so nice, like everything is just new,” Smutko added. “And I like the snow, so far.”