PISCATAWAY, N.J. (January 30, 2014) – With six letterwinners returning and the addition of one freshman, the Rutgers tennis team is set for a competitive season in the program’s first year in the American Athletic Conference.
The Scarlet Knights enjoyed a 13-7 regular season record last season, including a 7-2 mark in the BIG EAST. In postseason play, RU would down St. John’s in the opening round of the BIG EAST Championships before dropping to third-seeded Louisville in the second round. The team went on to fall to Marquette in the consolation match of the tournament.
“We had a strong record last year and played some very good tennis,” said head coach Ben Bucca, Jr. “With everyone returning on the team and with the addition of a freshman player, we are all extremely optimistic. With our strong fall season and the way the early season has gone, we continue to be very optimistic for a successful year this spring.”
Rutgers prepared for the spring season during the fall, when the Scarlet Knights competed in three tournaments: the Brown Invitational, the USTA Invitational and the ITA Regionals.
The Scarlet Knights return six letterwinners from last season’s team, including senior captains Stefania Balasa (East Brunswick, N.J.) and Vanessa Petrini (Stamford, Conn.). Petrini finished the season with an 11-10 record in singles action, including a 4-6 record in conference matches, while Balasa finished with a 7-6 singles record and a 4-4 mark in BIG EAST play.
“The players that are always most important in terms of driving the culture and the attitude of the team are the seniors,” Bucca said. “They’re the ones that the players look up to, they’re the ones that have been part of the program the longest, and they have the most experience. This year, we’re fortunate to have two really great seniors, Vanessa [Petrini] and Stef [Balasa], and their role was confirmed by being unanimously voted by their teammates as co-captains.”
Rutgers also returns last year’s team MVP in sophomore Gina Li (Hillsborough, N.J.), who led the Scarlet Knights with 16 victories at No. 2 singles. Li finished the 2013 spring season with a 16-5 overall record in singles action and was near perfect in BIG EAST contests, compiling an impressive 9-1 record in league matchups. Li also enjoyed success in doubles play, leading the team in doubles victories with a 12-7 mark.
Junior Lindsay Balsamo (Wall, N.J.) and sophomores Lindsay Kayati (Monroeville, N.J.) and Mariam Zein (Sugarland, Texas) also return for Rutgers. Kayati was second on the team in singles victories last season at 13-6, while Balsamo and Zein had nine and eight singles wins, respectively.
The program has just one rookie for the spring season in freshman Farris Cunningham (Houston, Texas). Cunningham, who competed for RU during the fall campaign, was a four-star recruit out of Duchesne High School according to Tennis Recruiting Network.
“Farris has really developed into a very serious competitor,” Bucca said. “She is definitely getting better with every day. She is rapidly improving and I know she will continue to improve once she gets into competition. She’s a meaningful member of the team and this year’s team is somewhat unique in that it is incredibly balanced. With a small team, only seven players, everyone on the team is actually going to have a very meaningful role in competition this year.”
The 2014 schedule is competitive, featuring five opponents that concluded the 2013 season ranked in the top-10 of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association 2012-13 Division I Regional Rankings.
“We’ve always had a tough schedule, where our nonconference schedule has always been against conference champions, and yet we’ve always had a winning season,” Bucca said. “That’s been our culture, and we’re confident we’ll continue that this season.”
“It’s a tough schedule,” he added. “The middle of the schedule is particularly demanding, where we have four away matches in eight days against really high quality teams. In all those matches the outcomes can go either way.”
The 20-game slate begins on Feb. 4 at Lehigh, before the team hosts its first home match of the year on Feb. 7 against Fairleigh Dickinson. RU will then hit the road for six-straight road contests, spanning from Feb. 9 through March 1. During that stretch, the Scarlet Knights will face Penn (Feb. 9), Army (Feb. 16), Princeton (Feb. 19), Louisville (Feb. 21), Cincinnati (Feb. 23) and Cornell (March 1).
Rutgers returns home for two nonconference matches against Binghamton and Delaware on March 7 and March 12, respectively before heading south for its annual spring break trip. The Scarlet Knights will travel to New Orleans on March 16 to face Louisiana schools Southern University, Southeastern Louisiana and Tulane.
RU will participate in its final two regular season road matches against local rivals UConn on April 3 and Seton Hall on April 8, before closing out the home slate against Villanova (April 11) and St. John’s (April 13).
Rutgers begins postseason play on April 17, as the team treks to Tampa, Fla., for the first-ever American Athletic Conference Championships.
“The American is actually a really good conference,” Bucca commented. “Unlike the BIG EAST Conference, where there was some disparity in the level of play, in the AAC there is parity. So our conference matches are going to be very competitive, we are going to be very competitive, and we’re looking forward to performing well. The big difference, this year, is that the coaches decided it would be a single elimination tournament as opposed to a double elimination tournament. That adds another level of pressure to the tournament, but we’re really looking forward to it. Tampa, in mid to late April, is a great place to go play tennis.”
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