RU embarks on biggest test of year

The mission for the Rutgers tennis team all season long is to finish in the top four of the Big East and earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament. The Scarlet Knights can take a big step towards reaching that goal this weekend, when they travel to Morgantown, W. Va., to face both Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

"Ask any team in the Big East, in just about any sport, and they will tell you that the trip to West Virginia is always a difficult one," said head coach Ben Bucca. "We're just expecting two really tough matches."

The Knights (11-4, 3-2) take on Pittsburgh on Saturday at 1 p.m. before wrapping up the weekend at 10 a.m. on Sunday against host West Virginia. Rutgers is currently on a three-match conference winning streak but now begins perhaps the most grueling portion of the schedule with four consecutive Big East road matches.

"Our competitive nature is our strength, you can't help but notice that when you watch a Rutgers tennis match," Bucca said. "We are ready to compete exceptionally hard over these next few weeks and as long as we do that we will continue our winning ways."

Every bit of that strength was needed this season for a team that has not played a single game on the Rutgers campus. The Knights were supposed to return home earlier this week, but the cold weather forced matches against Syracuse and Seton Hall to the indoor facilities at the Atlantic Club in Manasquan, N.J.

"It's too bad because we want people to come out and support us, and it would be fun if we were on campus," said senior captain Amy Zhang. "It doesn't bother us because the result of the match is still going to be the same, but we're definitely looking forward to our last match being on campus."

Zhang's 28-0 career home record will not be a factor this weekend, but her outstanding play of late certainly will be. She won singles matches in seven straight contests after a rough stretch earlier in the season, when she dropped three of four.

"Amy is playing fantastic tennis and moving exceptionally well with a lot of confidence," Bucca said.

The entire team played well of late, especially in doubles, an area that has been the Knights' Achilles' heel for most of the season. Bucca toyed with several different lineups in the Nos. 2 and 3 doubles slots since the team's spring break trip and each of the new combinations found moderate success.

"We have a lot of good players so I expect that we'll continue having some sense of rotation in doubles," Bucca said. "Everyone is capable of playing with one another and we feel confident with just about any lineup we use."

The No. 2 squad of junior Leonora Slatnick and freshman Stefania Balasa enjoyed success in New Orleans on the spring break trip, earning an 8-3 victory against Seton Hall. Junior Morgan Ivey has won three straight matches in the No. 3 slot and may have found her ideal partner in classmate Maryana Milchutskey.

Doubles will remain the deciding factor for the Knights this weekend in Morgantown and for the rest of their journey to the Big East Tournament, regardless of their lineups.

"Clearly doubles is the key to our success," Bucca said. "Since spring break we have been playing the type of doubles that we want to be playing, and it has led to winning."

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