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In the midst of a tough schedule, North Texas tennis determined to improve

In the midst of a tough schedule, North Texas tennis determined to improve

The UNT women's tennis team relaxes together before starting on their Monday practice. With a team season record of 5-7, they are focused on making big improvements over the week. Samantha Hardisty

In the midst of a tough schedule, North Texas tennis determined to improve
March 07
17:24 2017

Growth and toughness.

Those two words embody what North Texas head tennis coach Sujay Lama wants to see from his team as their season winds down. In what’s been a challenging 2017 campaign — facing seven Power Five conference teams in 12 matches with players fighting through injuries — this young group has benefited from squaring off with some of the better teams in college tennis.

The youngest squad in Conference USA, seven of North Texas’ eight players are either freshmen or sophomores.  In five matches decided by one point, the Mean Green are only 1-4, with three of the losses coming against Power Five schools.

And despite their 5-7 record, North Texas is determined to not let close losses keep them down. Even though they have had a slew of tough competition to start the season, players on the team are embracing the challenge of facing quality opponents.

“When you lose the matches like that you learn something new,” sophomore Tamuna Kutubidze said. “I think it’s much better to lose those kind of matches than win easy matches.”

Lama concurs, and said the bigger picture is more important than their record.

“I hate losing,” Lama said. “Nobody likes to lose, but that’s why you have the big picture. What’s the big picture? It’s what happens at the end out there, giving ourselves a chance to win the conference championship, play in the postseason. That’s what it’s all about.”

Unlike some other sports, all 14 tennis teams in C-USA are granted entry into the conference tournament regardless of their dual season record. Season records only determine seeding, with the top two seeds receiving a first-round bye.

In order to put his team in the best position to win a conference title in April, Lama said he must challenge his players with a formidable slate of matches in the months prior to the conference tournament. That way once they’re in the tournament, they’ll be ready for the best C-USA has to offer.

But things won’t get much easier in conference play.

C-USA is home to five top-125 athletes and plenty of other quality competition. Fortunately for the Mean Green, one of the conference’s best players resides on their own roster.

In her second year at North Texas as the team’s No. 1 player, No. 82 nationally ranked Maria Kononova has been the main beneficiary of this intense schedule. Kononova has already faced five players who currently hold a ranking in the top-125 spots in the nation and has more in the weeks ahead.

She has claimed victories over two top-80 opponents so far this season.

“It’s more fun for me to play if I know they have ranking,” Kononova said. “It gives me more will to win them. I would prefer [playing] tougher opponents and maybe lose all of the matches we have instead of playing some university we can easily beat. Winning games 6-0, 6-0 gives me nothing. I have to fight for something. I have to earn it in order to develop as a player.”

But it’s not just the top of the roster that is has been making an impact lately.

Senior captain Alexis Thoma and sophomore Minying Liang have both set a career-high four game win streak in singles matches this season. Liang has played through a nagging shoulder injury but has managed to fight through it and came up with a clinching victory over Arizona this past weekend.

North Texas is also getting contributions from freshmen Alexandra Heczey and Haruka Sasaki, who have helped solidify the bottom of the Mean Green roster. Heczey has been an integral part of the team since the start of the season and has racked up a 6-4 singles record.

“I really enjoy the game,” Heczey said after the Mean Green’s win over Arizona. “I enjoy college tennis and I can’t wait until the next match now. I have a lot of fun. I love it.”

North Texas has yet to win more than two games in a row and has only one back-to-back win this season.

Although their record may not indicate it, Lama is confident his team will right the ship and start playing up to their potential.

“I am hopeful that most of [the losing] is behind us,” Lama said. “Are there going to be so pitfalls along the way? No doubt about it.”

Featured Image” The UNT women’s tennis team relaxes together before starting on their Monday practice. With a team season record of 5-7, they are focused on making big improvements over the week. Samantha Hardisty

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Cesar Valdes

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