Rutgers targets semifinal Tourney berth

The road to the Big East Tournament was a long and winding one for the Rutgers tennis team, but its goal of a trip to the semifinals is finally in sight. Rutgers begins the final leg of its journey today in the tournament's opening round against West Virginia at noon in South Bend, Ind.

"Our goal as a team is to make it to the semifinals, but if we don't, it will be more of a disappointment then a failure," said junior Jen Holzberg. "We have had some really great wins, but making it to the semifinals would really make the end of our season so much better."

The Scarlet Knights (15-5, 7-3) drew No. 11-seed West Virginia after earning the Tournament's sixth seed. The two teams met earlier this season in Morgantown, W.Va., and Rutgers won a 6-1 decision.

"We need to take the match just as seriously as we did when we played WVU in the regular season," Holzberg said. "We can't take them lightly because we already beat them once, but I think we will do well if we play as we are capable of playing."

Head coach Ben Bucca also took the Knights' preparation for the Tournament very seriously. He opted to give the team more time off than usual in the weeks leading up to Big East to help alleviate the wear and tear of a long season.

"The Big East Tournament is hopefully four matches in four days, which is something that we don't see throughout the year," Bucca said. "We need to be in good shape with adequate rest. The challenge at Big East is not how well you're playing on Day 1, but how well you're playing on Days 3 and 4. That's how you're measured."

The best way to measure how well Rutgers is playing will be its doubles performance, just as it was all season. It is no coincidence that the Knights' overall record and doubles record this year were both 15-5.

"Our record replicated our performance in doubles, and I suspect that doubles will have the same importance at Big East," Bucca said. "The bright side is that we've settled into our lineup. All of the ladies have gotten better and a lot more confident in doubles play."

Bucca shuffled his doubles lineup in the Nos. 2 and 3 slots for most of the second half of the season before recently finding a combination to his liking.

Holzberg and senior captain Amy Zhang occupy the No. 1 slot as always, followed by junior Leonora Slatnick and freshman Vanessa Petrini at No. 2, and junior Morgan Ivey and freshman Stefania Balasa in the No. 3 position.

"Getting the doubles point will be crucial in each match. If we can focus on doubles, I think it will make all the difference in winning the match," Holzberg said. "The X factor will be playing as a team. We need to support one another on and off the court throughout the Tournament."

No. 3-seed DePaul awaits the Knights in the second round should they get past West Virginia. Rutgers and DePaul did not meet in the regular season, but the Knights surely anticipate that their second round match will be anything but easy.

"It should be a great match. We didn't play DePaul, but we played several common opponents and the scores in those matches were all 4-3," Bucca said. "We're going into the match with respect, but we know that we're capable of beating them."

This weekend figures to be bittersweet regardless of how far the Knights advance because it will be their last with the Gates Cambridge Scholar recipient Zhang.

Zhang, one of the most decorated athletes in school history, will graduate this semester, leaving a void in the hearts of Rutgers fans and in the tennis lineup.

"Everyone has great respect for Amy and I'm sure she really enjoyed her experience here," Bucca said. "We both look at it like we're right in the mix for this championship. She can be a leader for this team this weekend. If everyone plays as hard and effective as Amy, then we'll be successful."