March 3, 2015

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UMass tennis season comes to a close with loss to Virginia Commonwealth

Only one team gets to end its season with a victory. That’s the inevitable consequence of the conference tournament, where athletes and their well-acquainted opponents are pitted against each other with one final chance to claim conference dominance.

The Massachusetts tennis team finished its season on the upswing at the Atlantic 10 Championships in Mason, Ohio, over the weekend, posting some of its best performances all season. However, the Minutewomen couldn’t secure that final victory, falling in the semifinals to the eventual conference champion, Virginia Commonwealth.

Already UMass’ all-time winningest coach, Judy Dixon was fully satisfied by her team’s performance on the big stage.

“Everyone feels really strong coming home from this tournament,” she said. “If we’re going to lose, I want to lose to the eventual champion. …The match was well-contested. (VCU) was obviously the best team there and we competed the best against them.”

And compete they did, as the Minutewomen put up more of a fight than any other team in the tournament could muster, winning more games than any other challenger could against the Rams during the tournament, before succumbing to a 4-0 defeat.

VCU did not drop a set throughout the entire tournament, eventually steamrolling No. 2 seed Saint Louis in the final, but the Minutewomen kept up the pressure throughout the contest, winning games in all but one set.

Despite the loss of some highly talented seniors, including the winningest UMass tennis player of all-time, Jessica Podlofsky, and No. 1 and 2 singles players Yuliana Motyl and Sonia Bokhari, a handful of talented underclassmen have Dixon thinking optimistically for next season.

“I feel like while VCU is better than us at this moment, they’re not out of reach” Dixon said. “Having played them now this one time, we set the bar a little bit higher.”

UMass squashes Spiders in A-10 upset

Two years ago, UMass had a match point in the A-10 Championship final against Richmond. That point slipped away and the Spiders went on to claim the title.

After taking care of business in its first round of A-10 tourney action against Dayton, a quick 4-0 victory, the stage was set for a Richmond versus UMass rematch. This time around, on a rainy day the Minutewomen washed the Spiders out, defeating them with a balanced attack, 4-1.

“This team actually believed they were better than Richmond,” Dixon said. “I think because of that, the moment didn’t get too big for them. They came out with focus and energy and mostly belief in themselves.”

The dynamic duo of departing senior Motyl and rising star Anna Woosley, who posted a team best 7-2 doubles record, opened the match with a win in No. 3 doubles (8-4). The pair of Sonia Bokhari and Chanel Glasper followed right behind with an 8-6 victory, securing the doubles point.

Bokhari, playing in the last A-10 Tournament of her career, continued to lead the charge in the No. 2 singles slot, dictating her match from the beginning en route to a convincing win over Richmond’s Brittany Boys (6-1, 6-1).

Woosley bolstered her new conference tournament resume with a dominant victory of her own in the No. 5 slot, a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Katya Salas. Another freshman standout, Aarzoo Malik, posted the clinching win for the Minutewomen, defeating Elizabeth Sims (6-1, 6-2).

“Our freshmen really had an impact,” Dixon said. “That’s one of the things that will stay with me (from this season). Both Anna and Aarzoo made a huge impact. They’ve both become better tennis players, as opposed to strikers of the ball.”

Richmond’s Melissa Kandinata was the only Spider to win a match on the day, defeating Arielle Griffin (6-3, 6-2) in the No. 4 singles spot.

Two hard-fought doubles and three emphatic singles victories paved the way for UMass’ path to the semifinals, in one of the more lopsided results in this rivalry’s recent history.

In a year that will be remembered on one hand for the record-breaking accolades of team leader Podlofsky, this team had a season of two halves.

After three straight losses in mid-March, the Minutewomen found themselves at 5-7, hampered by early season injuries that limited progress.

“It took me a while to get the right lineup, to get the doubles combinations together, especially because of injuries,” Dixon said. “This team was slow to develop, but once it started to develop we got better…They were still improving as the year went on.”

As the team climbed back to full strength, positive results followed as UMass posted an 8-2 record the rest of the way, providing momentum and overwhelming confidence as the team moves into the off-season.

As Dixon approaches her 23rd year as head coach of the UMass tennis team, she acknowledges that the end of her tenure is nearing.

“I have thoughts of (retirement) in the middle of the season, at the most tiring point…But I’m already excited for September,” she said. “Coaches are crazy. While I do have these thoughts and I know that, in fact, I’m looking at the last years of my work life at UMass, I don’t have a definite deadline.”

She’s also urged on by the team’s late season success and a drive to carry that success forward into next season.

“Every coach wants to know that we finished the season playing the best we played all year, and we did. I will remember that.”

Arthur Hayden can be reached at awhayden@umass.edu.

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