Experience breeds improvements for Rutgers in 2015

<p>While Rutgers didn't manage to grab a single win in Big Ten play, junior Gina Li and the Knights competed with some of the nation's elite in each match.</p>

While Rutgers didn't manage to grab a single win in Big Ten play, junior Gina Li and the Knights competed with some of the nation's elite in each match.

The last point has been played and the final scores have been recorded.

For the Rutgers tennis team, the first season in the Big Ten has officially come to an end.

After its road trip to Indiana this weekend ended in two losses, head coach Ben Bucca’s squad is not one of the 10 teams that qualify for the Big Ten Tournament.

“The team set as a goal to qualify for the Big Ten Tournament," Bucca said. "… So anytime you set something as a goal and you don’t meet it then certainly there’s disappointment with that."

Looking only at their win-loss record, it could be assumed that the Scarlet Knights struggled consistently and experienced mostly disappointment.

While it is true that the Knights finished 6-14 and 0-11 in conference play, the story doesn’t end there.

The early portion of the season was promising.

In its opening match on Feb. 5, Rutgers dominated Farleigh Dickinson, 6-1.

Although they dropped matches to Temple, No. 60 Princeton and Charleston, the Knights finished non-conference play with an optimistic 6-3 record.

Before the season began, Bucca, assistant coach Hillary Ritchie and their squad were unsure about the move from the AAC, where they finished 16-5.

As they traveled to then No. 60 Maryland, with little experience facing nationally ranked programs, the Knights were not sure what to expect before losing, 7-0.

The next seven weeks were about to expose the program to a higher level of competition. Awaiting were 13 matches, mostly against a gauntlet of Big Ten powerhouses.

Eleven of those were Big Ten matches. Rutgers didn't grab a single team win.

On March 13, the Knights faced then-No. 73 Michigan State at home. From the first point to the last, it was a battle.

Freshman Chloe Lee won an impressive straight-set match in the No. 3 singles spot, representing her first individual Big Ten win. Senior captain Lindsay Balsamo was also victorious at the No. 4 spot, defeating Michigan State’s Catherine Parenteau decisively, 6-0, 6-3.

Junior Mariam Zein lost a heartbreaking match in the No. 5 spot against Athena Trouillot, 7-6 (3), 1-6, 6-4.

In a match where a few points did not go the Knight’s way, the fierce competition ended in a disappointing 5-2 loss.

“I feel like we had a lot of opportunities in that match and it was a couple games, a couple points from going our way so that’s probably the one that sticks out the most,” Balsamo said.

Rutgers’ match against then-No. 69 Minnesota at home on March 27 was painfully reminiscent of its narrow defeat to the Spartans.

The competition in doubles play was neck-and-neck. Minnesota took the three matches by no more than two games in each. At No. 1 singles, junior Gina Li defeated Minnesota’s Tereza Brichacova, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3. Zein was also victorious in the No. 5 slot, topping Maja Vujic, 6-2, 7-5.

In a match that seemed to be in the Knights’ grasp at points, the Gophers emerged 5-2 victors.

“Tennis is a difficult sport because it is an individual sport. I mean, we’ve all grown up playing it individually, and now it’s a team sport," Bucca said. "... It was tough to be on all cylinders all the time."

Bucca noted that the consistency that results in every member of the team performing at a high-level in every match is something that the Knights will work on in the future.

“I think there just has to be a recognition that historically, Rutgers tennis specifically and tennis in the Northeast generally consists of teams ... that are on the national platform,” he said. “So, in sports, you always want to promote consistency and it would have been wonderful if everyone could have been playing their best every match but that’s just not realistic, especially in a sport like tennis.”

But regardless of the team’s record, the season was not lacking in positive individual performances.

Fittingly, Balsamo captured the first individual Big Ten win for Rutgers in her No. 4 singles match against Iowa’s Annette Dohanics.

While it was  difficult for Balsamo to see her team struggle this season , she pointed to the individual successes the Knights achieved this season as proof of the team’s potential in its new conference.

“You have to realize that this is a transition year and the best is still yet to come for this program,” Balsamo said. “We really competed well against some of the best teams in the country and while we didn’t pull out team wins, we pulled out a lot of individual wins and it’s just encouraging for the girls coming back next season to know that they can pair those together and pull out some team wins.”

Junior Gina Li recalled her first Big Ten win in the No. 1 singles spot against Katia Blik.

“(The match) was at home and we had a lot of people come out, and it was such a close match," Li said. "With just the intensity level and all the energy, it was probably one of my favorite moments."

Also in singles, freshman Chloe Lee captured three conference wins. As she has three more seasons at Rutgers ahead of her, Bucca and the squad are optimistic about her future and the role she will play in their success.

“(Lee) kept getting better and mentally stronger, definitely starting to mature on the tennis court and I think it showed in the latter part of the season,” Bucca said.

Balsamo maintains that adjusting to travel is equally important to adjusting to the high level of competition in the Big Ten. But she believes that, as the weeks went on, the team made the necessary changes to its routine.

“Obviously those (weekends) are really tough because you’re really hurting and feeling sore on Sunday,” Balsamo said. “So that takes a little adjusting, but I think we handled that really well. And we all prepared and took care of ourselves.”

In what may seem paradoxical, Bucca maintains that as the season progressed and his team continued to lose to their Big Ten opponents, the Knights actually began to expect to perform better each time out.

“Our level of expectation improved,” Bucca said, “We transformed from a team that, in the beginning, really wasn’t sure about themselves and how they would compete against nationally ranked teams, to a team that, by the end of the season, went into matches fully expecting to compete effectively with nationally ranked teams. And that’s what familiarity does and that’s why, over the years, we are going to become more competitive in the Big Ten.”

Perhaps equally striking was the season-long commitment to remaining positive and competing at a high-level regardless of the disappointment of past matches.

“It would have been very easy for them to go negative, to start finger-pointing, to lose confidence, to lose their joy of playing because when you’re losing like that, that’s typically what happens,” Bucca said. “The team showed that they’re a very unique group and one that is very supportive of one another.”

Balsamo echoed Bucca’s sentiments.

“We’re an extremely close team,” she said. “Despite our record, we’re a winning team. Most teams that get on little bit of a losing streak do not fight the way we did all season and do not carry themselves the way we did. Going into every single one of our matches and even through all our matches, you really couldn’t tell which team was winning and which was losing. … We competed to the best of our ability and I think that’s really something to be proud of.”

Only days removed from its last match, Rutgers has not yet reflected on their season as a team and they plan to do so in a few days, when they can access objectively.

According to her own personal assessment, however, Balsamo, who had played in both the Big East and the AAC during her Rutgers career before the move to the Big Ten, remains impressed with how the team fared in its first season.

“(Going into the season) I knew the teams were going to be tough,” she said. “I didn’t really know what to expect, but I think I was surprised by how close we are to being there. I wasn’t sure if we really belonged in this conference, but I think any of the teams you ask would say that we pushed them and that we shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

Although Rutgers fell short in its ultimate goal of qualifying for the Big Ten tournament, its achievement this year lies in the Knights ability to compete and the team’s competitive spirit remained unwavering.

“What really sticks out and what I think will be the legacy of this team is really how they practiced and competed the right way,” Bucca said. “And even though that didn’t result in wins, it really resulted in setting a strong foundation of doing things the right way and over time that’s going to lead to us having wins.”

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

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