Trip to Wisconsin offers new level of opponents
Crunch time is here in full force for the Rutgers tennis team, as it faces the toughest portion of its 2010 season this weekend. The Scarlet Knights journey to Milwaukee, Wis., to take on Marquette and Big East beast DePaul in a series of make-or-break matches. Rutgers (11-5, 5-1) caught fire over the past month and a half, winning eight of its last 10 matches and creeping to the edge of the conference's upper echelon. The Knights reeled off five straight Big East wins — the most recent two on the road. Despite all the success thus far, the squad faces its moment of truth this weekend. Think of the two matches as the Knights' opportunity to claim the title of "contender" or "pretender." The easiest matches of the team's schedule are behind them and if Rutgers wants to continue moving forward it will have to go through some formidable foes. Judgment day comes Saturday, when the Knights go face-to-face with No. 21 DePaul. The Blue Demons (13-3, 4-1) present the biggest challenge the Knights faced all year. Rutgers has never beaten a nationally ranked team and head coach Ben Bucca knows it. His players know it. Quite frankly, Saturday's match is one of the program's most pivotal contests in years. Senior captain Katherine Arlak feels her team is well-equipped to handle the pressure. "DePaul is a ranked team and we know they're going to be tough," Arlak said. "I don't think we're nervous though. We know we're not expected to win the match, but if we go in there and play the best we can and play hard, we can beat them." Sophomore Jen Holzberg, the team's No. 2 singles player, is just as confident as her captain that the Knights will play up to the task. "I think we're ready for this," Holzberg said. "We've practiced hard and we've beaten all the teams that we should have. We're on the right track to finally beating a ranked opponent." Should Rutgers knock off mighty DePaul, junior ace Amy Zhang believes it would change the culture of the University's tennis program. "It would mean a lot to beat DePaul," Zhang said. "This team has really improved since my freshman year. We're at the point now where we could just level off or continue to get better." "We're so close to becoming a ranked team and it's time for us to get over that hump. It's not about talent on this team, it's about believing in our own abilities." Those abilities have not let the Knights down very often this season.
The squad's dominance in conference play has put RU in the mix for one of the Big East tournament's top four seeds — which would earn them a bye. The Blue Demons, along with No. 6 Notre Dame and No. 19 South Florida have all but locked up three of the four high seeds. Rutgers is in the mix for the final bye, but a loss at DePaul would likely derail any chance for the Knights to earn a day off in the tournament. "Getting a bye is really important because it's a day you don't have to play and put strain on your body," Holzberg said. "Hopefully we can help our chances by winning." RU will have another opportunity to pick up a conference victory on Sunday, when the team is hosted by Marquette. Though the Golden Eagles (11-11, 2-0) have dropped four consecutive matches, they are a solid team and will have extra incentive when facing the Knights. Last spring, Rutgers bumped Marquette from the Big East tournament in a highly competitive 4-3 match. Earlier in 2009, the Golden Eagles came into Piscataway and handed the Knights a 4-3 loss. There may be a rivalry brewing between the two teams. "Our win over them in the tournament last year was a really great match and it was big," Zhang said. "I'm sure they will be looking for revenge against us." The weekend is sure to be filled with dramatic volleys and motivated play. However, only one thing is certain — the team will have a completely new mindset when it returns to the Garden State. Rutgers will either come up short against a quality opponent and have its confidence shaken or it will break through a major barrier and reach a level of play that's never been seen on the Banks. "This weekend is very important to us," Zhang said. "We know we can beat them. It's about playing confident, playing strong and playing the way we know we can."