Two-time defending champs enter NCAA play
Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 10, 2013 at 5:01 p.m.
Considering the top-ranked Florida Gators are gunning for their third straight NCAA Championship and are the No. 1 overall seed for this year's tournament, they enter postseason play Saturday with a giant bull's-eye on their collective back.
Florida plays host to Marist in the first round of the NCAA Championships at the Ring Tennis Complex on Saturday beginning at 1 p.m.
Coach Roland Thornqvist, however, sees it as a good thing.
“I think our players are used to playing with a bull's-eye on their back, and I think they kind of like it,” he said. “It's like a badge of honor. It's nothing new to us, really.”
The Gators (22-2) enter Saturday's first-round match with Marist (11-7) at Linder Stadium on a roll, having won 15 straight matches en route to winning their fourth straight regular-season SEC title as well as a fourth straight SEC Tournament crown.
“Well, we don't know that much about Marist, but obviously they won their league (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference), so they're coming off a championship just as we (are),” Thornqvist said.
No. 23-ranked Georgia Tech (14-9), which earned an at-large bid after a fifth-place finish in the ACC, meets Ivy League champion Yale (17-3) in the tournament opener at 10 a.m., with the Gators scheduled to take on the Red Foxes at 1 p.m.
The winners meet Sunday at 1 p.m. for the right to advance to the NCAA Round of 16 in Urbana, Ill.
UF has hosted first- and second-round matches every year since the NCAA Women's Championships field expanded to 64 teams in 1999. The Gators are making their 31st appearance in the 32-year history of the event, having only missed in 1986.
Florida, which boasts an all-time NCAA record of 94-24 and has won six NCAA titles, has advanced to at least the semifinals 21 times in the last 25 years. In addition, UF, which is 41-5 all-time at home in NCAA tournament action, is on a 119-match home winning streak.
“We're pretty confident,” said senior All-American and 2013 SEC Player of the Year Lauren Embree. “We've had some pretty good results the last couple of years. We're really excited to host these first two rounds. It means a lot to us with the support that we get here, so hopefully we can get through this weekend.”
Having Embree, the No. 1-ranked singles player in the nation as well as the player who has provided the winning point in each of UF's national title-clinching victories the past two seasons, is a big plus.
She has compiled a 23-1 overall singles record for the year, is unbeaten (17-0) in the spring and sports an 18-match winning streak.
“Well that certainly helps,” Thornqvist said. “She's feeling good and she's moving really well, and she's about as fit as she's ever been.”
Another Gator looking to have a big weekend is junior Alex Cercone, who has won 11 straight matches and has been a solid postseason performer throughout her career.
“Her freshman year and sophomore year, she was a little more up and down during the season, but this year she has just been rock solid,” Thornqvist said. “She's had some monster wins for us, and maybe we're taking it a little bit for granted. She's steady, she works hard, she's got an incredible attitude and is a real fighter, and we're going to need all of that in the upcoming weeks.”
UF has not played since securing the SEC Tournament title April 21.
“We're really excited,” senior Caroline Hitimana said. “It's been a couple of weeks since we've played a match. We've been practicing hard and doing a lot of fitness, so we're ready to start.
“This means a lot to us. We have two more matches in front of our home crowd, and I think that's something special.”