by Chuck Pool (firstname.lastname@example.org) -
The Rice women's tennis team faces a stiff early test this weekend when they travel west for the first two rounds of the 10th annual ITA Kickoff Weekend.
The Owls will take on Oregon on Saturday at 3 p.m. (central), following the meeting between Maryland and host Pepperdine. The winners will meet at 3 p.m. on Sunday to decide which team will advance to the ITA Women's Indoor Championship, February 9-12 in Madison, Wisconsin. Saturday's losers will meet in a consolation match on Sunday at noon.
Host sites for the ITA Kick-Off Weekend were determined using the final 2016-17 Oracle/ITA Collegiate Tennis Rankings. A draft was held to fill the No.'s 2-4 seeds at all locations, again using the final national team rankings as a guide to determine draft order.
This is the sixth time the Owls have competed in the event, which began in 2009. Rice is 3-7 all-time during the Kickoff Weekend, including a 2-3 mark in opening matches. Last year, the Owls dropped a 4-2 decision to USC in the opening round of play in Auburn, Alabama and then defeated Fresno State, 4-0 in the consolation match the following day.
Rice is 1-0 heading into the weekend, picking up a 7-0 win over Lamar last Saturday but saw their Sunday meeting with 19th ranked Baylor postponed until March 6 because of the threat of rain.
Rice head coach Elizabeth Schmidt knows that her team is heading into a stiff challenge so early in the year, but one that can only yield positive results as the season progresses.
"It gives the feel of a national tournament for our freshman, with the first two rounds being played at a regional site," Schmidt said. "Our goal is to advance out of there at get to Madison, but it gives us an early feel of a tournament setting and that's what we need to be prepared for at the end of the year."
The Owls will find themselves in unfamiliar company this weekend, having played the other three schools a total of six times in history. Rice has defeated both Oregon (2000) and Maryland (2005) in the lone previous meetings and has faced the Waves four times, snapping a three-match losing streak with a 4-3 win at Jake Hess in 2013.
"What's really exciting about this weekend is that it is three teams that we have not played in very long time," Schmidt stated. "On paper Oregon is a really good matchup . Knowing how we both finished last year and looking at their lineup and ours, it's going to be a great college tennis match. It will be a battle on each court and probably come down to a few key points," she added.
In a change implemented last year, the initial Oracle/ITA national rankings are capped at the top 25 teams as selected by a national panel until the conclusion of the ITA Indoor National Championships, when computer generated rankings determine the national top 50. Pepperdine enters play this weekend ranked sixth in the nation after finishing 2017 ranked eighth. The remaining schools are not ranked in the current top 25, but Rice finished 2017 ranked 35th, three spots ahead of the Oregon and Maryland finished 47th.
"Rankings kind of give an idea of the level of a team but the reality is our focus is on playing it one point at time, one match at a time and taking each time on the court as an opportunity to get better," Schmidt said. "Playing high quality teams early in the season is going to show us where we are, what we are doing well and what we need to improve on.
"In one sense, it's another dual match, but it's in a tournament setting so you have three other schools there looking to advance. At the end of the day, it is a dual match and right now our mindset is we are preparing to face Oregon on Saturday," she added.