Women’s tennis ready to prove itself at Notre Dame

There’s no way to describe how special this weekend will be for Michelle Dasso.

When the Illinois women’s tennis team hits the road to take on Dasso’s alma mater, Notre Dame, on Saturday, the head coach can’t help but be nostalgic.

After playing for the Irish during her collegiate tennis career, Dasso returned as an assistant coach for three seasons from 2003-06. Having worked alongside Irish head coach Jay Louderback for several years, she said the visit back would be “even more special if we beat them.”

“I have a lot of respect for Jay, that’s where I started my coaching career,” said Dasso, who is in her fourth season with Illinois. “It was a big influence to me into coaching in general.

“It’s easier and easier with the amount of years you spend with your own program. These are the girls I work with day in and day out. I’m a Fighting Illini now.”

The Illini return to the road following a much-needed three-match homestand in which they won twice to improve to 3-4. That followed a tough 1-3 start in which the Illini dropped three close matches against top-20 teams.

This weekend, No. 29 Illinois hopes to even out its record with an upset at No. 15 Notre Dame (5-1).

The Illini hope to prove that they’re a better team than last season, when they fell 6-1 to the Irish.

“It’s a whole new ballgame this year,” said senior Megan Fudge, who grabbed the lone point last season with an upset over then-No. 35 Kelcy Tefft. “They lost their best player, and she was a senior last year. So I think this year, we can look at them as not being the same team that beat us 6-1 last year.”

Freshmen Breanne Smutko and No. 33 Rachael White add depth to the Illinois lineup that wasn’t there last year, and the team utilized its week off to treat some “nagging injuries,” including Leigh Finnegan’s hip flexor, Marisa Lambropoulos’ “bugging” shoulder and Chelcie Abajian’s strained iliotibial band.

“For Leigh, that was a big benefit to have the weekend off cause we didn’t play her at the last two matches,” Dasso said. “She’s only really been playing doubles for us, so she’s had a good break, so knock on wood she’s been able to practice so far this week and seems to be feeling better.”

Though it is still uncertain if Finnegan will be inserted into the lineup Saturday, Illinois knows that the doubles point will be a key factor.

With the Irish boasting No. 30 Kristy Frilling and a No. 12 doubles duo, the Illini know that the match will be a challenge on both the singles and doubles ends.

“I always think the doubles point is key,” Lambropolous said. “To start off 1-0 is a big difference knowing you only have to win three of the six singles matches. It’s a lot more comforting. They have a very good singles lineup also.”