While their season concluded with a 4-1 loss to No. 7 Georgia Tech Saturday, the No. 21 nationally ranked Ole Miss women's tennis team once again showed why their future appears so bright.
After dropping the doubles point, the Rebels fell behind 2-0 when Georgia Tech freshman Irina Falconi, ranked No. 12 nationally, defeated freshman Kristi Boxx, ranked No. 36, 6-0, 6-2. Georgia Tech then went up 3-0 when Noelle Hickey won a first set tiebreaker at No. 3 singles against Laura van de Stroet and then took the second set 6-2.
But displaying the resolve they've become known for all season, the Rebels battled back.
Ole Miss got on the board when Gabriela Rangel came back to beat Yellow Jacket Lynn Blau 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. The Rebels had chances to make it even closer, as they had match points at courts two and six before Georgia Tech forced a third set on two and evened it up on six. The Yellow Jackets closed out the win at No. 5 with Christy Striplin coming back to win a third set 6-0 after getting the second 6-2 against Guthrie.
Despite the loss, the effort was more than encouraging for head coach Mark Beyers.
"It was a great college tennis match between two great teams," Beyers said of Saturday's match. "The final line read 4-1, but there were two matches where we had two match points. It should have been 3-3, but their senior at No. 4 singles did a good job of coming back and taking command.
"I think our girls now realize how close they are to taking the next step toward becoming a top-10 team. They now have more experience and more hunger for next season."
Boxx, who earned All-SEC first team honors in April, headlines a team who will return all but one significant contributor from this year's squad.
Senior Mimi Renaudin held No. 6 singles duties for most of the year, totaling three wins to eight losses over the regular season. Sidelined this season due to injury, sophomore Pippa Reakes returns next year, along with Tennessee transfer Connor Vogel.
"She lost a couple of matches down the stretch, but Kristi was playing top-15 and top-20 players in the country all season," Beyers said. "If you look over the entire year, this team has done a tremendous job and have come a long way. They've done some great things. They got into the top-25, advanced to the SEC Tournament semi-finals and the second round of the NCAA Tournament. I think they realize we're still young and can be a very good team next season."
Finishing with an overall record of 15-10, Ole Miss wrapped with its best season since 2005.
They advanced to the second round of the NCAAs for the first time since 2001 and defeated five top-25 teams in the SEC along the way.
Beyers said the team's success in 2009 was an important step forward for a program hoping to hold a spot among the nation's elite.
"It's huge for the girls, because now they know they can do it," he said. "From a recruiting standpoint, it can only help. I think recruiting becomes a little easier. Kids want to be a part of this. What happened with these kids this season is they became a team. More than any team I've had, all the kids knew their teammates would have their back. They got along very well.
"We're losing one player and bringing in two new players who have already been on campus next season. With the additions of Pippa Reakes, who was injured, and Connor Vogel, a transfer from Tennessee, we can basically come back with the same group next year. The chemistry is already there. We're really excited about it. The talent level is there. Now they know they can compete at this level."
While Boxx and sophomore Karen Nijssen received a bulk of attention over the year, Beyers said the team wouldn't have been as successful if not for the contributions of others during key points in respective matches.
"Throughout the year, we've had people step up. We couldn't have done it with just Karen and Kristi," he said. "In both tournaments (the SEC and NCAAs), Gabriela Rangel came up big for us. She won all her matches at the SEC Tournament. For her to make such an impact was huge for us. All the kids at different times have made impacts in different matches. We wouldn't have reached our potential without them."
While the season ends on the team's side, Boxx and Nijssen will be participating in the NCAA individuals in College Station, Texas. Boxx will take the court in the NCAA Singles Championship and will also join Nijssen in the doubles championship as well.
The duo is ranked No. 16 in the country with a 17-5 record at No.1 doubles.
A Positive Direction
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