Rutgers hosts Illinois as it continues search for first Big Ten win

<p>Senior Mariam Zein believes Rutgers matchup with Illinois Friday will&nbsp;come down to energy and determination.</p>

Senior Mariam Zein believes Rutgers matchup with Illinois Friday will come down to energy and determination.

After some measured success against an extremely talented Indiana team, the Rutgers women’s tennis team looks to build off that performance and earn its first conference win Friday.

The Scarlet Knights (6-8) face a tough Big Ten rival in Illinois at 12:30 p.m. at the Rutgers University Tennis Complex, on Busch campus.

If the current forecast for heavy precipitation proves true, the match will take place at the East Brunswick Racquet Club.

Rain or shine, the Fighting Illini will be a difficult challenge for the Knights as they have been ranked as one of the top-60 teams in the country for the majority of the season.

The Midwestern force has a 6-6 record overall so far this spring, including one win and one loss in conference play.

Illinois has competed against six nationally ranked squads and impressively pulled off the victory versus No. 30 Virginia Tech.

They nearly upset perennial powerhouse Northwestern and routed the College of Charleston, both teams Rutgers has lost to this year.

In addition to those statistics, last year in Urbana, Illinois, the Knights were downed in dominating fashion by a final score of 7-0.

Despite the facts stacking up in favor of the looming opponent, Rutgers remains optimistic and believes it will have a much better showing this time around.

“Last year we were beaten decisively, but we are a significantly improved team,” said head coach Benjamin S. Bucca Jr. “We’ve got some confidence from playing strong tennis versus Indiana, and we’ll look to continue that against Illinois.”

Supplementing their self-assurance, the Knights have several strategies that could help propel them to a surprise victory Friday.

It’ll come down to energy and determination, according to Mariam Zein.

“We need to come out on our toes and take it to them early,” the senior said. “At the same time, we need to be able to grind out points and extend games by using our stamina to our advantage.”

Zein has a solid 7-6 record in singles and a 5-7 mark in doubles this season and believes all the hard work that she and the Knights have put into training will prepare them for any physical obstacle come game time.

When it comes to covering the more mental aspects of Rutgers’ game plan, Bucca doesn’t like to give away too much, but he centered on the doubles point as a huge focus for the squad.

Echoing his consistent conviction all year as well as Zein’s belief that a good start is especially important in any match, Bucca wants the players to strive for success in their doubles matches and get the Knights the early lead.

“We have the capability to beat anyone on a given day in doubles,” Bucca said. “With good play and a little luck, we can take the point against Illinois and run from there.”

Improving the health of Rutgers’ personnel has also been an emphasis for the team heading into the match.

Junior Ksenija Tihomirova has played outstandingly this spring, earning a notable 8-5 record in both her singles and her doubles opportunities.

Unfortunately Tihomirova was injured in the match against Lamar and had to sit out versus Indiana.

The Riga, Latvia, native is a principal piece to the Knights’ lineup, and they hope to have her back against Illinois.

Junior Farris Cunningham is another player the medical team has been keeping a watchful eye on.

After missing a couple bouts, she returned to action in a big way versus Lamar by defeating her singles opponent in straight sets in her home state.

“Having that minor injury was pretty frustrating,” Cunningham said. “Being from Texas though, it felt great to come back and get an individual win in front of friends and family.”

With Cunningham on the rise, Tihomirova expected to be active and the rest of Rutgers ready for battle, the Knights look primed to snag that elusive first Big Ten victory.

“They’re very good down the line,” Cunningham said. “But we’re excited to go out, play well and give everything we’ve got.”

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

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