The North Texas tennis team will begin its first Conference USA tournament right where it had hoped — sitting back and watching most of the rest of the teams in the league battle it out.
The tournament will begin today at Old Dominion in Norfolk, Va., with four first-round matches, while four teams wait to face the winners in the second round and four more sit back and wait for their first match in the quarterfinals.
UNT is the No. 3 seed and will be in that final group with the shortest path to the league title and a berth in the NCAA tournament. Tulsa is the No. 1 seed, while Rice is the No. 2 seed and Marshall the No. 4 seed.
“Having a double bye at this time of the year was what we were fighting for,” UNT coach Sujay Lama said. “It’s a good situation for us.”
UNT will play Friday morning. If the higher-seeded teams all advance, UNT would face Florida International in the quarterfinals with a showdown with Rice looming in the semifinals.
The Mean Green has faced a difficult road to earn a double bye in an injury-plagued year. UNT was without top singles player Kseniya Bardabush and fellow captain Franziska Sprinkmeyer for the early part of the season and also lost Kamilla Galieva for an extended period due to injuries.
“What we have been through has made us tougher,” Ana Sofia Cordero said. “At the beginning of the year, both of our captains were injured and not playing. I was injured and so were two other girls. In spite of it all that, we still performed well.”
UNT has won its last two matches, beating Texas-San Antonio and South Alabama, and feels like it finally has hit its stride late in the year.
“The way I look at it is that this team has gone through everything a team can go through,” Lama said. “We are peaking at the right time.”
UNT won the Sun Belt Conference tournament in each of the last two years and is looking for its third straight NCAA bid. The Mean Green knows just what it will take to reach that goal.
“The way the year has gone for us, we are going to have to win the conference tournament to get to the NCAAs,” Lama said.
UNT aims to carry momentum into off week
Tracey Kee has spent more than a decade coaching in Conference USA, first at East Carolina and now at UNT.
That history gave UNT’s first-year head coach a unique perspective on a breakout performance for her team, which swept a three-game series at Marshall over the weekend. Kee has made her share of trips to Huntington, W.Va., over the years and had never managed to get out of town with three wins.
The sweep left UNT (27-15, 12-5 C-USA) alone in second place behind Tulsa heading into a light week in terms of the schedule. The Mean Green will host rival Texas-Arlington at 6 tonight before having a weekend off from conference play.
Kee said UNT will come out with a fully stacked lineup tonight hoping to maintain momentum. Ashley Kirk, the Mean Green’s No. 1 starter, will pitch.
“We can put it all out there knowing that we have the weekend off,” Kirk said. “That is our mindset. It’s big to carry momentum into the weekend.”
UNT certainly doesn’t want to reverse course after pulling out of a late-season slide. UNT was swept by UAB in a C-USA series and split a pair of games with Louisiana Tech before bouncing back against the Thundering Herd.
UNT has two conference series left against Florida International and and Tulsa, C-USA’s top team, to finish the regular season.
“It was huge for us to sweep that series,” Kirk said. “We talked after the Louisiana Tech series about what we needed to focus on, and that was our series against Marshall and FIU. To take the three games and be in second place was huge.”
UTA (17-24, 2-9 Sun Belt) and UNT have played 16 times, with the Mean Green holding an 11-5 edge.
“My team has more history with UTA than I do, not being from this area,” Kee said. “Anytime you are playing a local team, you want to establish yourself as the higher of the two. This group really understands that UTA gets up for North Texas.”
Track and field
UNT to send distance runners to California
UNT will send its distance runners to the prestigious Mt. San Antonio College Relays in Walnut, Calif., this week in the hope that the high level of competition can help the Mean Green improve its national standing.
“Mt. SAC is what they call a distance carnival,” UNT coach Carl Sheffield said. “We have been building up to it.”
Jo Adams and Troy Taylor, UNT’s top 1,500-meter runners, will compete, as will Shauna Pali in the 10,000.
Charlotte Wilson will run the steeplechase along with Magdalena Escobar, who could face the biggest challenge among UNT’s competitors.
Escobar has only run the event once in her college career. Sheffield says she could be a good fit in the race long-term.
“She has been working on the barriers and is a competitor,” Sheffield said. “She will run a good time. It’s important for her to run there before the conference meet.”
UNT will send its sprinters to the John Jacobs Invitational in Norman, Okla., on Saturday.