May 10, 2009

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The No. 10 University of Tennessee women's tennis team fought every inch of the way, but came up just short in its quest to reach the NCAA Division I Championships in College Station, Texas, dropping a heartbreaking, 4-3, decision to No. 22 South Carolina (16-10) Sunday afternoon in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the UT Varsity Courts in Knoxville. The Lady Volunteers finish the 2009 campaign with a record of 18-7, marking their most wins in six years.

With the victory, South Carolina advances to the NCAA Division I Women's Tennis Championships at the George P. Mitchell Tennis Center in College Station, Texas, May 15-19. The Gamecocks will face No. 32 Washington, which moved on to the Round of 16 with a 4-3 victory over No. 7 Southern California in Los Angeles on Sunday.

"Although we are all extremely disappointed right now, nobody on our team has anything to be ashamed of," UT Co-Head Coach Mike Patrick said. "Today's match was as close as any that I have seen in a long time. We left everything out on the court and I know South Carolina did the same thing. Unfortunately, they had a few more points go their way, which made all the difference in the end."

Although it dropped the doubles point and faced deficits of 2-0 and 3-2, the Big Orange fought tooth-and-nail to claw its way to a 3-3 deadlock, setting up what was easily the most dramatic match of the season on center court between UT junior Caitlin Whoriskey and South Carolina senior Gira Schofield.

The two already had quite the history this season, having squared off twice, with Whoriskey emerging victorious on both occasions. The East Sandwich, Mass., native first defeated Schofield, 6-3, 7-5, in Columbia, S.C., on March 13, before taking her out, 7-6 (3), 7-5, at the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Fayetteville, Ark., on April 24.

On Sunday, Whoriskey took control early, jumping out to a 5-1 lead in the initial frame. The 43rd-ranked Schofield remained patient and took advantage of some uncharacteristic errors from Whoriskey to win the next six games and the set, 7-5. Once again, Whoriskey, ranked 34th in the nation, took the early lead in the second frame, utilizing three service breaks to grab a 4-1 advantage. Just like the first set, however, Schofield came storming back to tie it at five-all. This time though, Whoriskey was able to stop the bleeding by holding serve to go back up 6-5. Schofield did the same, however, tying it up at 6-6 and sending the set to a tiebreaker.

After dropping the first two points, Whoriskey used a barrage of strong forehands and her strong slice backhand to take the lead at 5-4. Schofield refused to back down though, claiming the next two scores to earn a match-point opportunity at 6-5. A long rally ensued, but Whoriskey smashed a cross-court winner to stay alive. With the momentum clearly in her favor, she was able to finish off the tiebreaker with back-to-back scores to win the second set, 7-6 (8-6), and send the match to a third and deciding frame.

This time, it was Schofield's turn to jump on top early, breaking Whoriskey in the opening game and holding serve in the second to take a 2-0 advantage. Returning the favor for Schofield's comebacks in the opening two sets, Whoriskey bounced back to tie it at 2-2, with a break of her own. That was as close as Schofield would allow Whoriskey to get, however, as she tallied back-to-back scores to go back up by two at 4-2. After winning the next game, Whoriskey found herself facing match point twice more while trailing 40-15 with the score at 5-3 in favor of Schofield. She stayed confident and continued to play her game though, fighting off both chances and winning the next four points to win the game and move within striking distance at 5-4. Unfortunately for fans of the Orange and White, that was where her luck would finally run out, as Schofield rattled off the next two scores, finishing it off with a winner down the left-side of the court past Whoriskey on her fourth match-point opportunity, to claim the contest, 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-4, and give South Carolina the match, 4-3.

"It's always disappointing to lose, but this one is pretty tough," Whoriskey said. "She is a very talented player though, and really played about as well as I've ever seen her play today. She came out and just had a couple more winners than I did and I think that is what decided the match.

For just the seventh time in 25 matches this season, Tennessee was unable to come away with the doubles point, falling behind 1-0 with losses at the second and third positions in the lineup. The Gamecock duo of Suzanna Mansour and Dijana Stojic scored the first victory of the afternoon, downing the Lady Vol combo of senior Samantha Orlin and junior Zsófia Zubor, 8-3, on court three.

Although it looked like the Big Orange was going to tie things up at a win each, with the 10th-ranked pairing of junior Caitlin Whoriskey and freshman Natalie Pluskota leading No. 27-rated Natasa Vuckovic and Ana Marija Zubori, 7-4, on center court, USC finished off the No. 2 doubles match to tally the initial point of the contest. Gira Schofield and Miljana Jocic combined to give their team the early advantage with an 8-4 triumph over UT sophomores Jennifer Meredith and Maria Sorbello. The loss was the first of the season for the Lady Vol duo which had won its first nine matches together since joining forces against Alabama on April 3.

South Carolina continued to apply the pressure at the beginning of singles play, led by the efforts of Stojic. The Gamecocks' third singles player, she increased her team's lead to a pair of scores with a 6-2, 6-2, win over Orlin. The Lady Vols were undeterred, however, and came roaring back with straight-set victories at the sixth and fourth positions. After a slow start in the first set, Zubor found her rhythm and cruised to a 7-5, 6-2, win over Mansour at No. 6 singles. Meredith then used a victory in a first-set tiebreaker to propel herself to a 7-6 (1), 6-4, triumph over Vuckovic at the fourth slot. Zubor's win marked her 20th of the season, giving UT five players with 20 or more wins this year. Meredith and Orlin top that list with 26 each, while Pluskota tallied 23 and Whoriskey finished with 22.

With the team score tied at 2-2, Zubori outlasted a hard-charging Pluskota on the second court, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4, to give USC the lead once again at 3-2. Despite the loss, the effort by Pluskota was especially impressive as she had not won a single set in her two previous matches against Zubori this season.

Sorbello quickly answered for Tennessee, bouncing back from a first-set loss to her opponent, Jocic, at the fifth spot in the lineup, to pick up a 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, triumph that tied the score at three-all and set up the epic battle on center court. Sorbello completes her first season at Rocky Top with an impressive 15-7 record, including a 10-1 mark in dual-match action.

Although the team portion of the season is complete, Whoriskey and Pluskota will remain in competition as they have both been invited to play in the individual portion of the NCAA Championships, May 20-24, at the George P. Mitchell Tennis Center in College Station, Texas. As the nation's 10th-ranked doubles team, Whoriskey and Pluskota earned an at-large bid to take part in the doubles draw, while Whoriskey, ranked 34th, will compete in the singles draw.

SINGLES

    1. No. 43 Gira Schofield (USC) def. No. 34 Caitlin Whoriskey (UT) 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-4
    2. No. 48 Ana Marija Zubori (USC) def. Natalie Pluskota (UT) 6-2, 5-7, 6-4
    3. Dijana Stojic (USC) def. Samantha Orlin (UT) 6-2, 6-2
    4. Jennifer Meredith (UT) def. Natasa Vuckovic (USC) 7-6 (1), 6-4
    5. Maria Sorbello (UT) def. Miljana Jocic (USC) 2-6, 6-3, 6-3
    6. Zsófia Zubor (UT) def. Suzanna Mansour (USC) 7-5, 6-2

    DOUBLES
    1. No. 10 Caitlin Whoriskey/Natalie Pluskota (UT) led No. 27 Natasa Vuckovic/Ana Marija Zubori (USC) 7-4 (unfinished)
    2. Gira Schofield/Miljana Jocic (USC) def. Jennifer Meredith/Maria Sorbello (UT) 8-4
    3. Suzanna Mansour/Dijana Stojic (USC) def. Zsófia Zubor/Samantha Orlin (UT) 8-3
    Order of Finish: Doubles (3,2*); Singles (3,6,4,2,5,1*)