Canes shoot for second straight Big East title

University of Miami men's tennis coach Jay Berger knows his team has to approach perfection in order to come away with the Big East Conference title for the second straight year.

Berger is staying positive and feels right at home as the No. 43-ranked Hurricanes (10-8) get ready to take the courts for the conference tournament this coming weekend, April 19-21 even when his hopes cling on the success of a freshman player.

Why shouldn't he- the Hurricanes won't have to travel very far.

Miami, seeded third, will be looking to defend their Big East title right on their home court at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center as host of the tournament. The Hurricanes will take on No. 6 West Virginia in the opening round on Friday. Should the men advance they would play No. 1 seed Notre Dame, Saturday at 9 a.m.

The Hurricanes women's team, seeded second, received a first-round bye and will play the winner of the Virginia Tech/Rutgers match Saturday at noon. The women, ranked 38th in the country, are 8-0 at home under first-year head coach Paige Yaroshuk.

The winners receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships. This marks the second consecutive year that the league has used a selection process to choose and seed six men's and women's team to compete for the title.

Berger likes his chances in a place where the Hurricanes have won five of eight matches this season, including victories over previously ranked Florida Atlantic, South Alabama, Georgia State and Middle Tennessee State. UM lost to then-No. 34 South Florida earlier this month.

"With so much on the line, it means a whole lot to play on your home courts," Berger said. "We feed off the crowd and they really make a difference. I thought last year they were tremendous. Hopefully, this year they'll give us that extra edge you're always searching for."

Berger will be looking for contributions from junior Andrew Golub and senior Jose Lieberman, both players that have struggled most of the season although they posses the skills to make a difference in the tournament. And a few victories from No. 1 singles player Todd Widom probably wouldn't hurt, either.

Widom, in his first-year with the Hurricanes, has shot through the rankings (No. 16) on the strength of a 24-5 overall record. Widom, 9-2 in tournament matches, has quickly earned the reputation as one of the best collegiate players in the nation in addition to the respect of his coach and teammates.

"Todd has gone out all season and performed like a No. 1 player. There is no need to change anything at this point," said Berger. "But I don't worry about Todd. He'll go out there and give me all he has. He's such a good competitor, I know what I'm getting."

Widom has won 11 of his last 13 singles matches with his last defeat coming against No. 14-ranked Phillip King of Duke as the Hurricanes dropped a 7-0 decision. Widom and Justin Kinney have compiled a 4-4 record in doubles competition.

The rest of the Hurricanes roster consists of only two players with winning records on the season. No. 6 singles player Tarik El Bassouni is 15-8 overall and 11-2 in dual competition, while freshman Maxime LePivert is 9-7. Golub, who has played at No. 3 and No. 4 this season, is only 10-13. Lieberman, who has been effective at No. 5 singles, is 13-14 overall.

"It would be a serious boost if Jose and Andrew play solid tennis for us. That would make our chances of winning a lot stronger," said Berger.

It won't be easy.

The top-seeded Fighting Irish, who have been nationally ranked in the top-10 all season, are the frontrunners to dethrone the Hurricanes. Senior Javier Taborga hasn't missed a beat in stepping into the No. 1 singles spot for Notre Dame, posting a 17-4 dual match record. Taborga also climbed to No. 18 in the national rankings.

No. 2 seed Virginia Tech, who finished third last year in their first season in the league, has won 10 of their last 12 matches to earn a No. 30 ranking in the national polls. Boston College, the No. 4 seed, could be the sleeper team on the men's side of the tournament.

The Eagles posted a 6-0 record against despite having one senior and junior on the team. Rutgers, at No.5, is led by junior Maarteen Vissers and senior Takashi Zetsu at the No. 1 and No. 2 spots respectively. West Virginia, the sixth-seed, will need plenty of victories from No. 1 Adam Marchetti (11-5) and freshman Eric Kochanski (9-3).

"Virginia Tech has a really solid team from top to bottom," said Berger. "If all there guys are playing near the top of their games they will be tough to beat no matter how well we play." The Hurricanes women's team figures to be battling top-seeded Notre Dame on championship Sunday. The Fighting Irish, ranked 25th in the nation, knocked off the Hurricanes 4-3 on Apil 7th.

Notre Dame is led by No. 86 Becky Varnum. Varnum and Lindsey Green are ranked 30th in doubles play. Miami will counter with No. 1 singles player Mari Toro (22-9), No. 2 Marcy Hora (12-11) and No. 3 Staci Stevens (22-11). No. 4 singles player Sihem Bennacer is 21-12. To win the title, the Hurricanes will have to shrug off third-seeded Virginia Tech, led by Kristen Stubbs (11-8). The Hokies finished the season 14-8.

Juniors Masha Kabanova and Shervin Saedinia lead the way for fifth-seeded Syracuse, who was 4-2 in the Big East this season. Senior Amanda Travios anchors No. 6 seed Rutgers.

Freshman Amy Molden, 6-0 in the Big East, anchors No. 4 seed Boston College.

The men's NCAA Tournament finals will be held May 18-27 at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, while the women's finals will be contested May 16-25 at Stanford University.

"We need everybody to step it up if we're going to win," Berger said. "We can't expect anyone player to carry us all the way through."

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