May 10, 2012
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Free from the rigors of the academic year, the Rice women's tennis team will take to the Palmer/Salloum Tennis Center/Galtney Courts facility more than ready to make their first NCAA appearance in six years against a familiar foe.
Elizabeth Schmidt's 39th ranked Owls will face off against a #18 Illinois squad that found its regular season footing when delivering Rice's first home loss of the season on March 19 and went on to move into the national top 20. Schmidt is glad to have a little familiarity on the court even if most of her team is making their NCAA debuts.
"I think it is nice that we're familiar with them," Schmidt said. "We know their tendencies and were able to watch video on them. We have about as much information as possible about them. We feel like we have a solid game plan going into the match."
The Owls and Illini were not originally scheduled to face each other in the regular season, but the match was added after Rice's match at UAB was rained out. Illinois was heading to Texas for its Spring Break trip that was to open with a match vs. Texas later in the week. While the Owls were the higher ranked team, Schmidt knew heading into that match that Illinois would provide a formidable challenge.
"Illinois is a really good team and I knew there were going to be tough. They came in here after a series of close, tough losses and they were getting outside for the first time in the spring. They went up to Austin and beat Texas after they beat us and went on to have a great finish to their year. "
The Owls are making their return to NCAA action one day shy of exactly six years since their last NCAA match. They fell to 16th ranked TCU, 4-0 on May 12, 2006. That team clinched an automatic berth after winning the C-USA title as a seventh-seed.
This year's team had to wait a bit longer to know if their season would continue, earning Rice's first at-large NCAA bid since 1998. Once they heard their name announced on the NCAA's selection webcast, Schmidt's team set about preparations for the rematch with Illinois with their finals and their academic routine in the rearview mirror.
Without the grind of class work, Schmidt saw the Owls hit the practice courts with purpose, but she's also that match time is finally at hand.
"It's a challenge for us when it comes to the NCAA Tournament because our conference championship is one of the early ones. It's a longer break than we've been used to and I have seen that in the practices we've had this week. They've had enough practice and are ready to go play a match.
"We've had great practices, but you can see it in all of them, they are ready to get on a court and compete.
Junior transfer Katie Gater, who played in a pair of matches with Virginia in 2010, is the only member of the squad who have previous experience in playing in the NCAA, but Schmidt and volunteer assistant Blair Henley, who played #1 singles for the Owls in 2006, have been there to offer their own NCAA reflections to the team if needed.
But Schmidt is not worried about the Owls letting the larger stage impact their play.
"They get it. Everyone on the team has played in some big tournaments and big matches. It's another one of those. The biggest thing I have told them is to enjoy it. They've earned their place in the NCAA Tournament," she said.
The Owls game plan will remain the same as it has been since the first practice of the fall.
"I had a coach once who told me to `stick with the boy who brought you to the dance'. That's the mentality you have to use. We've worked on the same things since the fall and we've implemented them in tournaments, then continued to work on them this spring and implemented them in the dual matches and in the conference tournament. You have to know your strengths and use them, no matter where you are playing. You have to take that mentality to the court and then relish the experience. Play each point and enjoy the moment."
Schmidt knows that the key test will come early in Friday's match.
"You're going to have nerves. Every competitor has nerves when they compete in big situations. So it's important at the beginning to keep it simple. You just have to work through those early nerves and also realize that your opponent is feeling the same things. Then just go out and play your game."