Rutgers continues battle for conference victory

<p>Head Coach Ben Bucca says he has seen significant improvement in the play of junior Mariam Zein. Zein was one of two victors in singles play against Minnesota March 27.</p>

Head Coach Ben Bucca says he has seen significant improvement in the play of junior Mariam Zein. Zein was one of two victors in singles play against Minnesota March 27.

Any opportunities to utilize home-court advantage have passed.

The Rutgers tennis team had its last two matches at East Brunswick Racquet Club of the season this past weekend.

Another challenging weekend awaits the Scarlet Knights (6-10, 0-7) as they travel to Illinois for back-to-back matches.

The Knights will face No. 21 Northwestern on Saturday at 11 a.m. before heading to the University of Illinois for a 10:00 am start on Sunday.

With only four matches left on the schedule, the Knights, who are four games under the .500 mark, need to take advantage of every chance to capitalize.

Rutgers dropped its last two matches in a disappointing homestand. No. 69 Minnesota came in off a 4-3 loss to Michigan State on the road, but contained any threats the Knights posed. 

Although Rutgers exhibited one of its best performances against a ranked Big Ten opponent — juniors Gina Li and Mariam Zein registered singles wins — the Gophers ultimately took the match by a 5-2 score.

The Knights attempted to rebound against Wisconsin on Sunday, but after an exciting 8-4 win at first doubles, they dropped five out of six in singles and fell to the Badgers.

Winning the doubles point is essential to maintaining Rutgers’ morale going into singles play.

Rutgers head coach Ben Bucca has seen tremendous growth in Zein, who, along with her new partner freshman Chloe Lee, captured the sole doubles win against Wisconsin (8-7, 2-3).

Zein has worked hard on her doubles play and understands that if the Knights want to take full advantage of the weekend matchups, they have to make sure they are focused when the duos take the court.

“Doubles has been a really important part of our tennis matches because it is one whole point. Both of our coaches really drive it home that it’s extremely important," she said. "All of us work on strategies, but it’s resonated with me so I have been able to use the drills and strategies to build my confidence and try to move better and recognize balls that I should hit and the timing I should hit them with."

The Knights' conference struggles have raised questions about their ability to remain confident in the last few weeks of the season.

While Bucca acknowledges this fact, he sees a simple solution in developing a positive mindset.

“There’s nothing like winning that enables you to build your confidence, but we have just had matter-of-fact conversations with the team and we have just addressed the issue right up front, and the message that I have provided to the ladies, which I think that they believe, is that it’s up to them to choose how they respond to losing,” he said “... They could also look at it that we’ve been playing great competition and we are now a much better team — no doubt about it, we’re playing better."

Zein has also been influential in pushing the team to work on its morale during matches. Bucca said that Zein has started to verbally express positive emotion after important shots, and as many members have adopted similar practices, he feels that it has helped the team tremendously.

“We really want to come out there and be really spirited and be in their face and be competitive,” Zein said. “I mean, it’s hard. Every single tennis match to play up to your capability because you’re not going to be 100 percent playing the best you’ve ever played every single match. That’s what frustrating about tennis — some days just aren’t as good as others but if we can all try to … be really spirited and fight really hard then that’s the goal, that’s what we want to try to achieve.”

The Knights’ match against Northwestern (8-5, 3-2) will be a challenge to say the least, and the team will need positive reinforcement on and off the court 

The No. 21 Wildcats are coming off a road win against No. 43 Michigan State.

Illinois represents a significant opportunity for the Knights to capture the elusive Big Ten win that they have been seeking for weeks.

Rutgers and Illinois meet for only the second time in program history, with their last battle coming in 1990, when the Illini took it, 7-2.

However, fast-forwarding to 2015, Illinois does not have a conference win yet either.

Zein sees this fact as significant.

“This is a great opportunity. They don’t have a Big Ten win and neither do we," she said. "So that puts us on a level playing field. At the end of the day, we’re just playing tennis across from someone."

While the Knights will have to continue their efforts to keep confidence high, they will also have to fight the fatigue that may come with this weekend’s schedule.

Back-to-back matches are difficult even when the first battle is not against a top-25 team.

“It’s always hard when you’re traveling and you have two matches back to back, especially if you lose one, then your team’s morale is kind of low and you’re not as confident going into the next one, it’s only natural," Zein said. "... We’ve had experience with tough weekends where we have played two schools and we know now that even if we lose or one of us doesn’t play well one day, we just have to come back 100 percent the next day."

As their first season in the Big Ten winds down, tough weekends and nationally ranked opponents have become a given for the Knights.

Substituting unfamiliarity with experience, Bucca said Rutgers is ready with confidence.

“We’re now at the point where we’re really starting to get comfortable playing highly ranked teams,” Bucca said, “In years past, (Northwestern’s) ranking might have been a little intimidating to us, but no longer — not with the schedule we’re playing and with the level of play we have encountered and with how we have responded.”

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

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