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Promising season has Mean Green tennis itching for C-USA title

Promising season has Mean Green tennis itching for C-USA title

Members of the North Texas tennis team celebrate Mingying Liang's singles match win that advanced North Texas to the next round of the championship. Sara Carpenter

Promising season has Mean Green tennis itching for C-USA title
April 26
19:53 2017

At the early stages of the season, North Texas tennis head coach Sujay Lama said anything short of a conference title would make this season a failure.

Looking back, those were some pretty lofty expectations for a team carrying three freshmen, four sophomores, and only one senior.

Make no mistake, the maturity, leadership and talent on this team were exceptional — but what really kept them from hoisting the Conference USA tournament trophy was a lack of experience. In matches decided by one point, the Mean Green finished with a 2-6 record. While they were able to compete in nearly every match they played, North Texas was almost never able to close out opponents when it mattered the most.

Against teams in Power 5 conferences, the Mean Green were a lowly 2-7, and never held a record above .500 this season.

Still, as I found out in my own experiences covering Lama’s crew, one of the best ways to learn is through failure.

In early March, North Texas traveled to Fort Worth to take on then nationally ranked No. 22 Texas Christian University. As I sat in the stands surrounded by a sea of purple and white, murmurs of a quick sweep made their way across the crowds.

To the Horned Frogs’ surprise, the Mean Green stretched it to a three-hour long bout.

While they didn’t win, what was impressive of North Texas’ 5-2 defeat was the fight that freshmen Alexandra Heczey and Haruka Sasaki put up. That match felt like a learning moment for the team, and I bet Lama felt like a father watching his children grow up before his eyes.

Through the ups and downs of this rollercoaster season, Lama emphasized two things to his team: growth and toughness. No matter the results, Lama wanted his team to overcome adversity. Since moving to C-USA in 2013, Lama has yet to bring a conference title to North Texas.

That’s not a shot at the 11th year Mean Green head coach, however, especially considering Lama has made three appearances to the semifinal round of the conference tournament the last four years. To be fair, North Texas went up against tennis powerhouse Rice, who went on to win each of those tournaments, in each of those semifinal rounds.

But with standout sophomores Maria Kononova and Tamuna Kutubidze entering their junior year, the pressure to bring a conference crown home to Denton will be at a high next season.

Especially since Kononova had her best season since coming to Denton.

Her 18 singles wins broke the school record for the most in a spring season. The Russian native took down five top-125 ranked singles players. It will be difficult to expect those same results next year, but with her work ethic and character, it shouldn’t be past her capabilities.

As for Kutubidze, the Mean Green will benefit from having a fully healed version of herself in 2017. Kutubidze was limited early on in the season after coming off of a short rehab from ankle surgery.

Kutubidze was never playing a match 100 percent healthy, but she never used that as an excuse. The closest she was to her full potential was towards the end of the season where there were flashes of dominance.

It was remarkable that she compiled an 11-9 singles record.

Together, Kononova and Kutubidze went an unimaginable 17-1 in doubles matches.

The trouble is when the tandem doesn’t pull out the win.

The past two seasons, Kononova and Kutubidze failed to win a doubles match, making North Texas 0-6 in claiming the doubles point. Although it’s a small sample size, when either Kononova or Kutubidze drop a singles match, the Mean Green are 3-9.

If the Mean Green want to find themselves in the first round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013, they’ll need more consistency from the lower courts.

With senior Alexis Thoma graduating, a hole will be left at court three for either sophomore Minying Liang or Heczey to take.

Heczey, who played a majority of her time at the team’s No. 4 singles spot, made impressive strides throughout the year and finished the season with a 9-10 singles record.

Liang played the majority of the season with a significant shoulder injury and managed to post a 10-6 singles record and two clinch victories, including one over Middle Tennessee State University in the C-USA quarterfinals.

Beyond the No. 4 singles slot, the production at the five or six court is up in the air. Sasaki saw some early playing time at the lower half of the lineup but was taken out after only picking up three wins in 14 matches. Freshman Ivana Babic only played two singles matches but showed some glimpses of promise in doubles.

The arrival of Nidhi Surapaneni and Sille Tranberg in the fall will add some extra competition, but if the top four singles continue to trend upward, they may not even need the lower courts to play great in the regular season.

Because if North Texas wants to reach its full potential and dethrone Rice for the conference title, they’ll need the lower courts to step up.

Featured Image: Members of the North Texas tennis team celebrate Mingying Liang’s singles match win that advanced North Texas to the next round of the championship. Sara Carpenter

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Cesar Valdes

Cesar Valdes

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