UH takes on Rice for regular season finale
In-state rivals UH and Rice will meet for the tennis regular season finale at 1 p.m. Friday. The Cougar collaborated with The Rice Thresher for a preview of the game.
Who are the players most in form on your team?
Thresher: Rice freshman Anastasia Smirnova, who was recruited to Rice this season with her twin sister Victoria Smirnova from Nivelles, Belgium, has been all season at number three singles, according to head coach Elizabeth Schmidt. Earlier this season, she rattled off five singles wins in a row, for which she was named the C-USA Female Athlete of the Week.
Smirnova strikes aggressively with solid groundstrokes to compliment a deft net touch to overpower her opponents. She is on a three-game winning streak in singles. Impressively, she has conceded only eight games during those three straight-sets victories.
The Cougar: There are many players that are playing well for the team, but freshman Stephanie Belovukovic has been on fire basically all season. She has 15 wins and only two losses in singles play.
While in France, Belovukovic played herself to No. 90 in the world for sub-14-year-old players. It is no surprise she has found success at the collegiate level. She has been one of the most effective singles players on the team. UH does not necessarily need her to take over to succeed, but her production will be one of the deciding factors in this match.
What are the ideal starting lineups on your team?
Thresher: Doubles has been a strength for Rice all season. Schmidt has emphasized that when the Owls can begin a match with a sense of urgency and take the doubles point, there is less stress on her team. For Rice to thrive in doubles against UH, Schmidt should rely upon her staple pairings: sophomore Michaela Haet and sophomore Linda Huang at number one doubles, Anastasia Smirnova and junior Priya Niezgoda at number two doubles and Victoria Smirnova and sophomore Anna Bowtell at number three doubles.
In singles, Rice’s number one, two and three spots are well established with Haet, Victoria Smirnova and Anastasia Smirnova filling those roles. As for the four through six spots, starting Niezgoda and Bowtell are a must. But I recommend benching freshman Diae El Jardi in favor of the lone senior on the squad, Fernanda Astete, for this final regular season match. Say Bowtell at four, Niezgoda at five and Astete at six.
The Cougar: The ideal doubles lineup should include junior Phonexay Chitdara and freshman Sophie Gerits. Both of them are new additions to the team, but that did not stop them from making their presence felt early. The Belgian duo only took one loss the whole season and started the season on a winning streak that did not end until late February.
Each player is individually effective, and when they are together they multiply their strengths. They paired with other players to end the season, but the Belgian connection should continue against Rice and into the postseason. UH’s doubles game has been solid all season, so expect the other pairings to be effective as well.
What is the necessary element of progression this weekend to culminate the winning seasons of your team in championship title success?
Thresher: Five of Rice’s six losses this season have come against top 50 opponents. These defeats have demonstrated Rice’s lack of experience: of the six Owls who have played singles most frequently this season, five of them are either freshmen or sophomores.
Last season, when Rice won the Conference USA Tournament, it played three seniors. Its number one doubles team, the senior pair of Lindsey Hodge and Wendy Zhang, was nationally ranked. For the Owls to capture their fifth C-USA title in six seasons, the sophomore duo of Huang and Haet must lead the way, and it starts with capturing a win against the Cougars.
The Cougar: I need to see the team continue its steady production through every match. This season has been a building process, as many of the players and even the coach are new to the program.
The match against Rice is another chance for the team to get better, win or lose. At this point, experience is the most important factor for the team. With three freshmen on the roster, any amount of extra time on the court against other opponents will benefit the team in the long run.