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Rutgers grows through early stages of first Big Ten season

<p>Senior Lindsay Balsamo captured the first Big Ten Conference victory for the Knights with a win in a singles match against Iowa March 7.</p>

Senior Lindsay Balsamo captured the first Big Ten Conference victory for the Knights with a win in a singles match against Iowa March 7.

With this season marking the first of the Big Ten era, the Rutgers tennis team expects a challenge — but not without historic moments along the way.

Although individual players have achieved their own first Big Ten wins in singles and doubles play, a team conference win has proved elusive for the squad. 

The Scarlet Knights (6-8, 0-5) were members of the Big East and the American Athletic Conference before leaving the two behind to enter the prestigious Big Ten. In the years before the Big Ten era, Rutgers tennis had a reputation of dominance, qualifying for the Big East or AAC tournaments in 10 of 11 seasons under the direction of head coach Ben Bucca. 

The 2014 season, the last in the AAC, was no exception, with the Knights finishing 16-5 and 3-1 in conference play. 

Fast forwarding to 2015, the Knights currently sit at the bottom of the conference standings. But even the most basic research points to the reality that in joining the Big Ten, Rutgers joined a conference of tennis powerhouses.

There are 10 out of the 11 Big Ten opponents on the Knights’ schedule this season are nationally, ranked according to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.

Since the start of conference play on Feb. 28, Rutgers has faced five Big Ten teams, four of which are nationally ranked, including No. 22 Ohio State.

Senior Lindsay Balsamo points to the rigor of the schedule as the major difference between prior conferences and the Big Ten.

“In the past, we only had a few matches that we really had to be on all cylinders for and have everyone playing really well,” Balsamo said. “It would be okay in the past for a couple players to have a bad day and we could still pull out wins, but now we need every player to be playing their best at every match.”

In their first Big Ten match, the Knights traveled to College Park to face then-No. 54 Maryland. Although Rutgers suffered a 7-0 shutout at the hands of the Terrapins, they were without junior Mariam Zein, forcing Bucca to substitute Balsamo for Zein to join Gina Li in the No. 1 doubles spot.

The Knights’ match on the road against Iowa on March 7 was a potential opportunity to capture a Big Ten victory, as the Hawkeyes represented the only unranked opponent on the schedule this season, but a 6-1 loss delayed the milestone yet again.

However, rather fittingly, senior captain Balsamo achieved the first individual Big Ten win for Rutgers.

The prospect of facing nationally ranked teams is fairly new for the Knights. But in the weeks leading up to the 2015 season, it was understood that the Big Ten would present elite opponents week after week.

"Just because ... we play in the northeast region, we haven’t had many opportunities to play nationally ranked teams in the past," Bucca said. "So we knew it was going to be a tough battle and now that we’re in it, we’re okay with it."

Rutgers has not altered its practice routines in their determined effort to fundamentally improve as a unit.

Bucca maintains the team’s mission of executing controlled aggression and adjusting as needed as it becomes exposed to the previously unfamiliar styles of their opponents.

“We’re practicing exactly the same way and we’re working on the same fundamentals and point strategy that we’ve always worked on,” Bucca said, “And now in the Big Ten … regularly playing against nationally ranked teams … we are very quickly learning that we’re just coming up a little bit short. It’s getting closer and closer with each match as we continue to improve, and it’s just a matter of time before we breakthrough.”

Despite their lack of success in the team win column, the Knights are on equal footing with their opponents when it comes to pace and power.

“That’s not been a problem for us — we handle the pace,” Bucca said. “What we have discussed as a team is that really the teams that come in with very high national rankings, they show a level of consistency that is stronger than what we typically are faced with, but definitely with the power, we can hit right there with anyone.”

An 0-5 start to conference play could potentially damage Rutgers' confidence, but the team maintains that has not been the case and the closeness of the matches is further evidence of their ability to compete in the Big Ten.

Against No. 37 Michigan State, the Knights lost a fiercely competitive battle, 5-2, in which Balsamo posted a dominant singles victory and freshman Lee Levy and junior Lindsey Kayati registered a doubles win.

However, Rutgers recognizes that its opponents have clearly been better where it mattered.

“Whether we win or whether we lose, we huddle and have candid conversations with one another and what I am trying to impress upon the ladies of the team is to not get too disappointed at losing because that will only further diminish their skills,” Bucca said. “And this is a unique opportunity for us to be playing many teams who are, quite frankly, just a little bit better than us right now.”

Bucca maintains that although his team has yet to break through and capture a victory over a Big Ten opponent, that is mainly due to a combination of inexperience and the need to continue to develop mental fortitude — two factors that can only improve as the season progresses.

The Knights are unwavering in their belief that their new home in the Big Ten is a perfect fit for their program — and they aren't intimidated by future matchups.

“A lot of it is truly believing in yourself so that when it comes time for the crucial points in the match that we play with true conviction,” Bucca said.  “… And we’ll get that once we get a little more familiarity with our opponents, because we are quickly learning that we do belong with these teams in this very elite conference of women’s tennis.”

For updates on the Rutgers tennis team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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