The Red and Blue experienced success in 2004 as four Quakers received All-Ivy honors.
May 20, 2004
PHILADELPHIA - The University of Pennsylvania women's tennis team provided many exciting moments in 2003-04 as the Red and Blue were across the net from nationally ranked opponents throughout the non-League schedule, emerging victorious in their first five dual matches of the spring season en route to a 15-5 overall record. The Quakers posted a 3-0 mark to begin the Ivy League schedule, finishing third the Ancient Eight at 5-2. Penn climbed as high as No. 28 in the ITA national rankings and saw a slew of seniors end their collegiate careers in fine fashion as Nikky Ptak, Shelah Chao, Rachel Shweky and Raluca Ciochina earned All-Ivy honors.
The 2003-04 season began with individual tournament play this past fall and it began with the seventh annual Cissie Leary Memorial Invitational held at Levy Pavilion and Lott Courts on the Penn campus. Alice Pirsu, one of four Quakers seniors on this year's team reached the finals as the top seed. Pirsu fell to No. 23 Julie Smekodub of Tulane as Smekodub captured her second-straight Cissie Leary title. Pirsu did was not forced into a third set until her semifinals match with Temple's Danira Penic, which she won, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5. Pirsu opened the invitational with straight-set victories over Princeton's Darcy Robertson, 6-3, 7-6 (3), and Ohio State's Jackie Leskovar, 6-1, 6-2, en route to the championship match.
Fellow senior Ptak had a strong showing at the event, reaching the quarterfinals with wins over Connie Chiang of Northwestern (6-4, 6-1) and Penn State's Jessica McKeown (6-0, 6-3), before falling to Tulane's Erica Valdes.
Penn traveled to the Big Apple for the Columbia Invitational and an underclassman stole the spotlight as Caroline Stanislawski finished the weekend a perfect 5-0 in singles and doubles action. Stanislawski defeated Princeton's Jessica Siebel, 6-2, 6-3, and Columbia's Molly Condit, 6-0, 6-2, before dispatching of the Tigers' Joanna Roth, 7-6 (3), 6-3 to end singles competition unscathed. She then teamed up with classmate Ciochina in a pair of doubles matches and a pair of wins. The duo was victorious over Princeton's Darcy Robertson and Laura Trimble and Stephanie Berg and Siebel, 9-7 and 8-6, respectively.
The next stop for the Quakers was the USTA Tennis Center Invitational in Flushing, N.Y. where Stanislawski and Ciochina shined as the sensational sophomores won singles titles in their respective flights. Stanislawski ran through five different opponents in "B" Flight competition to earn the title, defeating Kentucky's Danielle Petrisko, 7-5, 3-6 (10-4) in the finals to improve to 10-1 on the season. Ciochina captured the "C" Flight, leaving four opponents in her dust on her way to the title. She matched up against teammate Sara Schiffman in the finals, winning, 6-0, 6-3.
The ITA Regional event was the setting for Ptak to take center court, on her way to the finals, Ptak defeated No. 1 seed Candace Fuchs of William & Mary, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, to advance to the quarterfinals. She then bested Virginia's Mariko Fritz-Krochkow, 6-4, 6-2, before falling to No. 7 seed Emily Marker of Maryland, 7-6 (6), 6-4, in the finals. Ptak and Fritz-Krochkow would meet again in dual competition when Penn defeated the Lady Cavaliers, 4-3, to improve to 4-0 begin the spring season. The venue was different but the result was the same as Ptak was victorious, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Penn, unranked entering the spring season, climbed into the top-30 in the nation according to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) in March. This came on the strength of facing two top-20 opponents in Texas and Texas A&M and starting out 5-0 and 8-1 with wins over No. 51 Maryland and No. 31 VCU.
"We had a great year, looking at our schedule," commented Head Coach Michael Dowd, "Defeating Maryland, VCU, Virginia, Penn State and Old Dominion and being very competitive with Texas and Texas A&M who were both ranked in the top-20. It was a spectacular year."
Despite the loss of Pirsu, whose eligibility expired at the end of the fall semester, The Red and Blue began the spring with wins over Colgate, Penn State and Richmond, 5-2, 7-0 and 7-0, respectively, followed by a 4-3 decision over Virginia and a 5-2 victory against Old Dominion.
Penn's success was due in part to the play of a pair of seniors, Ptak and Shweky. Ptak began the spring by winning seven of her first eight dual matches, which included five straight-set victories and ended with a first-team singles All-Ivy nod and a second-team selection in doubles with partner Ciochina. She started off with wins over Penn State's Leigh Ann Merryman (6-2, 6-2) and Colgate's Marissa Alzneala (6-2, 6-1). Her only losses during this stretch were to Nataly Cahana of Old Dominion and Texas A&M's Jessica Roland, ranked No. 29 and No. 21, respectively at the time. Ptak ended the season with the second-most wins on the team, going 21-9, and ended her career with a 68-41 mark.
"Nikky Ptak played the No. 1 position this season and has improved as a player like I have never had a player improve," praised Dowd.
Shweky also began the spring on a streak, winning three of her first matches, highlighted by a 6-3, 6-2 win over Richmond's Robin Carter. She won four-straight matches as non-League play ended and Ivy competition began, earning three straight-set victories and a dramatic come-from-behind win over Karen Chao of Rice, 4-6, 6-3, 6-0, to begin the streak.
"These three players, including Sanela Kunovac, Ivy League Player of the Year as a freshman, won the first Ivy League title for Penn in their freshmen year. They won the [Ivy] title their first two years and started as freshmen. This class took this program to the next level and they will be a tremendous loss," said Dowd.
The superb play did not end with the upperclassmen. As shown during the fall invitational season, the youngsters played a huge part in the success of the Red and Blue in 2004, beginning with Ciochina. Ciochina ended the season with the team's best record at 22-7. She was nothing short of spectacular, winning 12 of her first 14 dual matches and starting the Ancient Eight schedule with a 3-0 mark. The sophomore posted seven straight-set victories over the span, starting with a 6-0, 6-0 win over Penn State's Lindsay Downing in the No. 5 singles match on Jan. 31. Her three-set, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, win over Maryland's Neda Mihneva at the No. 5 slot secured Penn's 4-3 win over the Terps, improving its dual match mark to 7-1.
Also showing no signs of a sophomore slump, Schiffman worked her way to the third-best singles record on the team, going 19-7. She ended the season by winning six of her last eight matches and beginning the Ivy schedule 3-0. Five of her six wins during the span were of the straight-set variety and she either began or ended a match with a love set on four separate occasions.
Chao was another bright spot for the Quakers this spring as the junior ended the year with a 16-11 singles record, 12-7 in the spring, and a Penn-best 6-1 mark in the Ivy League at No. 3 Singles. She earned first-team doubles honors with senior Shweky and second-team singles honors. Chao also enjoyed an extended winning streak as she won seven of her last eight matches, going to three sets in only two of those victories.
"Sara was our most improved player this season. She had a great record and turned into a leader both on and off the court. She really played some great tennis for us. Our young players really stepped up for us this year. [Caroline] Stanislawski stepped up to a tough position after playing No. 6 last season and had a great year playing No. 2 singles. [Raluca] Ciochina had the team's best record and Chao had our best Ivy record," commented Dowd.
On the heels of the Mar. 9 release of the ITA rankings, that showed Penn ranked No. 28, the Quakers earned a 7-0 victory over Houston during their southern swing and entered the Ivy League season on a two-match winning streak and victors of three of their last four with only a 5-2 loss to No. 10 Texas during the stretch.
Penn began the Ancient Eight schedule with wins over Columbia (6-1), Princeton (5-2) and Brown (7-0), dropping its only doubles point to the Lions. Throughout the Ivy season, the Red and Blue surrendered only two doubles points, the first to Columbia and the second to eventual Ivy League champion, Harvard. Dowd credited much of Penn's success throughout the spring to his team's doubles play.
"Our doubles [play] was definitely one of our strongest points this year. We only lost three or four doubles points all season and a lot of those doubles points carried us through. A lot of those doubles matches helped us to win some of our 4-3 matches and kept us in others."
Kate Williams, a junior from Hinsdale, Ill., played a large role in Penn's doubles success as she amassed a 21-4 doubles record and now stands at 35-11 for her career. Whether her doubles partner was Felicia Cucuru (4-1), Kunovac (6-0), Schiffman (3-1), or Stanislawski (8-2), Williams proved her worth in the No. 3 doubles position the entire season.
The Red and Blue had a pair of 7-0 victories against Brown and Cornell during the Ivy League season, but a 5-2 loss to Yale and a 6-1 defeat at the forehand of now two-time defending champion Harvard ended Penn's season at 5-2 in the League and 15-5 overall, along with its hopes of reclaiming its spot at the top of the Ancient Eight and, unfortunately an unprecedented fourth-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament after earning an at-large bid for the first time in the program's history in 2003 was not in the cards for the Quakers in 2004.
"We played well [during the Ivy season] but lost a tough one to Yale and as a coach you want to win every match but Harvard and Yale are two great teams and they beat us this year but I have no regrets. Looking forward, we lose four seniors next year but he have a good group of freshmen coming in and hopefully it won't be so much a rebuilding year, but a year that we reload in hopes of keeping the strength and competitiveness of the Penn program at the same high level of success it has achieved during my tenure here," said Dowd.
A core of key contributors return in 2004-05 and they, along with the newcomers, may be at the center of what is needed to achieve Penn's third Ivy League title and a return to the national stage at the NCAA Tournament.
Written by Mat Kanan, associate director of athletic communications