UMass tennis falls short of ultimate goal despite special season

By Philip Sanzo

(Araz Havan/Daily Collegian)
(Araz Havan/Daily Collegian)

When the Massachusetts tennis team looks back on its 2014-15 season, it will remember its impressive depth, strong leadership and its menacing doubles play. It was arguably UMass’ most talented roster ever, and the season was hardly boring.

But ultimately, the season ended in heartbreaking fashion in a narrow loss to Virginia Commonwealth in the Atlantic 10 Championship match Sunday. It was the Minutewomen’s first loss in more than a month, and only the fifth loss all season.

Still, UMass coach Judy Dixon will remember this team in a special way. “I look back at the number of years I’ve been here and I never ever had to once ask this team to pay attention at practice to practice harder,” she said. “They never had a flat match … every match we came out fired up and ready to go and with high intensity.”

The Minutewomen finished 17-5 and 4-0 in regular season A-10 play. The 17-win season is tied for the second most in UMass history.

While it’s common for a tennis team to be strong at the top of its lineup, it was the Minutewomen’s depth at the bottom that separated it from other opponents.

Aside from No. 1 singles, where Aarzoo Malik struggled the entire season, the UMass singles lineup was a dominating force. Between No. 2 and No. 6 singles, UMass posted a record of 78-20.

Often, that depth carried the Minutewomen.

After shining her freshman season, Malik was awarded with the top singles spot this year. But the season did not go as planned for the sophomore.

“It was a real learning experience because in the beginning of year she thought ‘Oh I want to play (spots) one or two,’” Dixon said. “I think she couldn’t get far enough away (from those spots) now.”

Malik struggled greatly. She posted a 3-11 record at the No. 1 spot and was 8-18 overall, which was far from her 14-9 performance a year ago. Dixon has made it clear Malik will not be at No. 1 singles next year.

“She has to go back to a number she is going to be successful at,” Dixon said. There’s a possibility the spot could be filled by freshman sensation Ana Yrazusta.

The Minutewomen will also lose a key player in Chanel Glasper, who will graduate. Her final year at UMass might have proved to be her most influential. Glasper, who earned the distinction of captain this season, made UMass history by winning 77 singles matches, an all-time career record.

But Glasper’s season ended abruptly when she injured her right Achilles in her singles match of the championship game. Glasper couldn’t participate further and was forced to concede the match, providing VCU with the championship. She will undergo surgery Thursday morning.

While much of the attention from 2015 was focused on Glasper, there were plenty of unsung heroes on the team, maybe none more important than Carol Benito.

A transfer from Tulsa University, Benito made a seamless transition to UMass. She posted a 22-8 overall record and was 9-0 at No. 4 singles, while alternating between the No. 4 and No. 5 spots this season.

When talking about Benito’s first season with UMass, Dixon’s first word was “unbelievable.”

“Carol Benito is tough as nails and she gets every single ounce of ability out of her body,” Dixon said.

Statistically speaking, she was one of the most crucial parts of the team. But the impact she had as a veteran tennis player could be considered just as valuable.

Yrazusta benefited from Benito’s presence on the team the most. She entered the season with talent to spare, but often allowed her emotions to hinder her performance in matches early in the season. She matured as the season progressed and proved to be much more dominant when it ended than when it started.

Much of this transformation could be attributed to Benito.

In January, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association ranked the doubles team of Benito and Yrazusta as the 10th-best doubles team in the Northeast. They lived up to that ranking in a big way.

“For my money, those two kids made the most difference,” Dixon said.

The duo put together a record of 27-6, a UMass single-season record. The doubles team had not lost since Feb. 26 before losing to VCU in the A-10 Championship game.

The Minutewomen graduate only two seniors. While 2015 is classified by Dixon as “the best team” she’s had at UMass, Dixon believes the 2016 team could be even better.

Philip Sanzo can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Philip_Sanzo.