Women’s tennis wins another conference championship

Women's Tennis win C-USA Tournament
All photos courtesy of Jordan Foreman/Conference USA

By Chuck Pool

Traveling an unconventional path, the Rice women’s tennis team shook off the loss of five of six first sets in its singles matches to capture its sixth Conference USA (C-USA) title in the last seven years with a 4-2 win over Old Dominion University on April 21 at the George R. Brown Tennis Center. With the win, the Owls (16-7) earned an eighth consecutive berth in the NCAA Women’s Tennis Championship.

“We showed a ton of heart, a ton of grit, a ton of perseverance,” said Owls head coach Elizabeth Schmidt. “Those are words we’ve been talking about a lot this year and it’s something we’ve been (wanting) them to grow in, and for them to do it on this stage, losing five first sets and coming back and gritting out this match, it’s a testament to that group. They’ve worked so hard and they’ve grown so much and I am just so proud of them.”

Rice grabbed the early lead in doubles play when Michaela Haet and Linda Huang broke on the first service game of their match and never looked back, defeating 87th-ranked Holly Hutchinson and Brooke Pilkington 6-1. Anna Bowtell and Victoria Smirnova delivered their third clinching win in as many matches at the tournament, breaking back in the 11th game to set the stage for Bowtell to serve out for a 7-5 win.

Seeking its first C-USA title, 37th-ranked Old Dominion took an early advantage in singles play by winning five of six first sets, two of them in tiebreakers. But the 41st-ranked Owls refused to surrender the lead, sending three of the five matches to third sets, including a pair that delivered the final two points. Smirnova, a freshman, closed out an unbeaten weekend with a 6-4, 6-2 win at the second line. The victory was her sixth straight and her team-leading 16th of the year. She dropped only 14 games over three singles matches and finished first in both the semifinals and finals to increase Rice’s lead to 2-0.

Playing on the next court, twin sister Anastasia Smirnova was the first to force a third set, as did Haet and Bowtell at the fifth line. ODU tied the match at 2-2, but Anastasia put Rice back up 3-2 with a 1-6, 6-4, 6-4 win. Haet forced a third set with a 7-3 tiebreaker win in the second set, then duplicated that effort in a second tiebreaker to clinch the match.

The Owls’ seven C-USA titles in women’s tennis are the most for any school, and their eight consecutive NCAA bids is the longest active postseason streak at Rice.

The Owls will turn their focus to final exams this week while awaiting the April 29 announcement of the bracket for the NCAA Championship, which begins May 3.

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