NCAA TENNIS: Lady Gators Advance To Round Of 16

Since last year this time, when the unthinkable happened, it's been a year of soul searching and adaptation for Coach Roland Thornqvist. He's spent the year putting all his energy and effort into getting the Florida women's tennis team back to the top, back where it belongs, but the journey has been one with a few twists and turns along the way.

His team was supposed to be loaded for a run at the national championship this year but then his top player, Alexis Gordon, dropped out of school for personal reasons, forcing Thornqvist to hustle three highly recruited freshmen into a reshuffled lineup. Then there were those two consecutive losses indoors to Vanderbilt and Kentucky early in the season that turned his team from the usual spot of hunted in the Southeastern Conference into the hunter.

The SEC losses were avenged a couple of weeks ago when Florida took out Vandy and Kentucky on consecutive days to win the SEC Tournament, and Saturday, the Gators put last year's second round disaster against Miami behind them by scoring their second straight shutout in the NCAA Tournament, blanking Florida International 4-0 at Linder Stadium. With the win, the second-ranked and second-seeded Gators advance to the NCAA Championships in Athens, Georgia, where they will face Baylor in the round of 16 on Thursday.

Florida took the doubles point Saturday with wins at number one (Jennifer Magley and Zerene Reyes, 8-3, over Nikkita Fountain and Paula Zabala) and number three (Lolita Frangulyan and Nina Suvak, 8-5, over Bruna Discodria and Courtney Jonson). In singles, Florida got points from Reyes at number two (6-1, 6-2, over Egle Pestrauskaite), Whitney Benek at number four (6-1, 6-1, over Shilla D'Armas) and Frangulyan at number six (6-2, 6-2, over Discordia).

The victory for Reyes was number 100 in her four-year career at Florida.

The Gators started shakily in doubles and Thornqvist saw his worst nightmare doing a déjà vu. Visions of Miami last year were racing through his head until his team settled down.

"The second round ghost showed after the first 20 minutes," he said. "I thought we looked a little tentative on all three courts [in doubles]. At the same time, FIU played loose, without fear, swinging from the hip. I thought our talent and superior skills took over after maybe 30 minutes or so on one and three and from then on I think we controlled things pretty well."

In singles, the Gators won three points easily and led in the other three matches when Frangulyan got the clincher on court number six.

"In singles, we looked really good again I thought on every court," said Thornqvist, whose Gators took out South Carolina State, 4-0, in Friday's first round NCAA match. "We played disciplined tennis, we were making good decisions. I think we're fitter now than we've been all year. I think right now in singles we're probably a step ahead of where we've been all year."

Where they've been all year is figuring things out. Frangulyan, Benek and Alex Liles, all highly recruited freshmen, have been forced into the lineup with sophomore Nina Suvak, and the upperclassmen, Reyes (senior) and Magley (junior). Thornqvist has had to do more coaching than he did in the past couple of seasons, but the hard work and the instruction has paid off with a team that is maturing as the season goes along.

"This year's team is different than last year," said Thornqvist. "Not so much in talent but in age. Last year we had seniors and juniors who had done it several times. This year we have four new players making their first trip to the round of 16 here so obviously it's different. You have to talk more and show them more probably and I think we certainly did that more this year than last year."

The freshmen were all standouts on the junior circuit and all came to Florida oozing with potential. Thornqvist would have preferred to bring them along slowly, but Gordon's departure and some injury problems created a circumstance that required force feeding them into the pressure-packed world of SEC tennis.

"When we recruited these three we had a pretty good feeling that they were talented, no question about it we were thrilled that they signed with us and decided to come here," said Thornqvist. "All three of them had won at the junior level but obviously there is always that question mark can all three of them make the transition into playing high in the lineup for a championship team? You don't know that until they're actually put in the lineup and in the spotlight.

"So we knew that the talent was there and they've done a great job working. I've said all along that this is one of the hardest working teams we have had here. We have to be because we're young. Obviously I'm thrilled where we are right now and I was hoping we'd be where we are."

There was a question that they would get this far back in March when they lost the two straight matches to Vandy and Kentucky. Thornqvist says that while losing two in a row was a shock, it proved to be a good learning experience and it got his team focused on what they had to do to improve.

"When you lose you have to evaluate where you are," he said. "Sometimes you win and you slide in a win here and you don't really get that shock of why can't we get better? Losing those two made us see right away you have to get better here, here and here.

"Two years ago in 2003 (NCAA championship season) we lost at Vandy and it made us switch our doubles lineup around. It (losing) brings forth to the surface key points that you might have to change and it forces your hand more, so no question it made us a better team."

Along with the hard work and instruction on the court, Thornqvist has driven this team to become the most physically fit team he's had in his four years at Florida. Early season injuries and the loss of Gordon took away his depth, so he's had to rely on a team of just six players. The Gators showed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament that they could go three straight days with just six players and in Athens, to make the championship match, the Gators will have to win three matches in three days.

"On a physical level we're ready for four days," he said. "That's not going to be the issue. It's are we good enough, not are we going to be fit enough [to play four straight days]. We'll be the fittest team in Georgia no question about it."

Having won the first two matches of the NCAA Tournament, there is a feeling of confidence on this team. Even the freshmen are feeling it.

"We're as confident as we can get," said Benek, from Delray Beach. "I don't think any team has worked as hard as we have. Just playing these matches [in terms of fitness] it's like nothing. We're ready to go to Georgia to kick some butt!"

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