Quakers return a host of talented veterans ready to make a run at the Ivy title.
Feb. 3, 2004
The Penn women's tennis team looks to make even more history this season as four seniors return to lead the 2003-04 Quakers back into the national spotlight. Three of those four student-athletes who are in their final year at Penn have high hopes of making the NCAA Tournament for the fourth-straight season, while one other is looking to finish her collegiate career as one of the top-ranked players in NCAA Division I.
Coming off a 15-6 season that saw the Quakers lose their stranglehold on the Ivy League title after going 6-1 in the Ancient Eight, Head Coach Michael Dowd looks forward to a refreshing change of pace that "the hunter" brings with it. Strong senior leadership and talented student-athletes at each singles and doubles position should put the Quakers back in the hunt for their third Ivy title in four seasons.
"Last year's team was probably better than the team that won the Ivy League title the two years previous, but the level of competition has really risen across our League," Dowd said. "We were competitive in every match we played last year - we didn't lose to anyone outside the top 20 nationally - which really says a lot about where the future of our program is heading."
Senior Alice Pirsu may be the most well-known Penn women's tennis player, but she certainly is not the only one who has put Penn on the national map. A slew of returning players, including second-team All-Ivy League honorees Nikky Ptak, Shelah Chao and Rachel Shweky, are ready and able to take this team to the next level and Dowd wouldn't want to have it any other way.
"I really like the experience of this year's team. I think we have the talent and the power to become a leader in the east and on the national level," Dowd stated. "We have a lot of returners wearing Ivy League Championship rings. Our players know what it takes to win as many of these student-athletes have only lost one Ivy League match in three seasons. I think they are disappointed with last year's single loss, but they are hungry to go back at it for another title in 2004."
For the second time in Dowd's tenure at Penn, the Quakers will sport three captains to lead the women's tennis team into the upcoming season. Three-time captain Sanela Kunovac, two-time captain Pirsu and tri-captain Ptak and will take the reigns of the 2003-04 squad. Each heads into this season with national-level experience and each knows their way around the Ivy League enough to take on the Ancient Eight's best.
Pirsu continued her tear through the NCAA women's tennis scene last year as she became the first player in Penn women's tennis history and just the second in Ivy League women's tennis history to reach the Round of 8 at the NCAA Division I Singles Championships. She played in all three major invitational tournaments last year and she was the only player in the NCAAs to take a set from eventual national champion Amber Lui of Stanford before falling to her in the quarterfinals. Pirsu heads into this season as a two-time Ivy League Player of the Year, two-time All-American and two-time unanimous first-team All-Ivy League honoree in singles and doubles.
"Alice really gained a lot of confidence against the country's best last season," Dowd said. "It was a great experience for her to be in the NCAA Championship and it was a really good thing for our program to stand out like that on a national level. I know she will take that experience and make it work for her again in her final season with our program."
The rest of the senior contingent - Ptak, Kunovac and Shweky - make up the backbone of this program. After an incredible freshman year that saw her earn both Ivy League Player and Rookie of the Year accolades, Kunovac has been battling injury after injury, but is now prepared to take her game back to the highest level.
"Sanela has tremendous resilience and is a no-nonsense type player," Dowd commented. "She has battled some injuries the past couple of years but made a big commitment this past summer to get in shape and get through some injuries to get herself back on track and finish her college tennis career strong. She has great character and I see her using her strengths to be the on- and off-court leader this team needs this year."
Leading the way on the doubles front, Shweky and partner Chao made a case for themselves at No. 2 doubles throughout the Ivy League season as they were just one of three Penn doubles teams to go undefeated. The injury bug hit Shweky last year, but she bounced back to earn her third All-Ivy honor in doubles, and hopes to complete the sweep in her final season on the court.
"We hope that Rachel will be fully healthy this year so she can help us out in singles, as well as continue her excellent doubles play," Dowd said. "She is a great ball striker on the doubles scene. She has great hands and good instincts which in turn makes her a great team player on all fronts."
Ptak, who is affectionately known as "The Silent Leader," returns for her last campaign as a three-time All-Ivy player who is not afraid of nationally-ranked competition. She played No. 2 singles throughout the 2003 spring season where she went 5-2 in the Ivy League on her way to second-team All-Ivy honors. Ptak was named Penn Tennis' Most Inspirational Player and her work ethic has shown through in her 88 singles and doubles victories in three years at Penn. Ptak teammed with Raluca Ciochina at doubles and finished the spring season ranked No. 9 in the East Region.
"Nikky leads by example," Dowd said. "She is always going the extra mile; doing the extra workout. She has been steadily improving over the last three years and with the schedule we have this year, she will hope to not only be regionally ranked, but turn some heads on the national scene as well."
Sticking with returning All-Ivy honorees, junior Chao is ready to make an even bigger splash in her third season with the Quakers. Chao teammed with Shweky last year to earn her first All-Ivy honor, a second-team nod, but with the experience she gained by playing in the ITA Eastern Regional and her second NCAA Tournament, the Quakers look for Chao to be a player to beat this season.
"Now that she is an upperclassman, we expect Shelah to really step up this year and use the experience she has gained by being in some challenging matches against nationally-ranked opponents in the past," Dowd said. "She has the potential of being one of the best players in the East and I expect that this year will be really big for her. Her maturity has grown and she is a smart player on the court."
Other rising upperclassmen include Michelle Yeh, Kate Williams and Brandy Washington. All three players bring good knowledge of the game of tennis, as well as some experience to the court for their third seasons at Penn.
"Michelle is as steady as they come," Dowd stated. "She has played in a lot of big matches for us and her consistency on the court is huge. She brings a lot of experience to the table and she always has a smile on her face.
"Brandy and Kate are great team players," Dowd continued. "They are always supporting the program in whatever facet is necessary and are always ready to compete. Each has the ability to take their game to the next level, and if that happens, don't be surprised to see their names in the top spots in the next two years."
The sophomore duo of Caroline Stanislawski and Ciochina impressed the masses last season during their first campaign with the Quakers. Stanislawski went 13-7 in singles, which included an upset over Ashley Hedberg of Texas A&M at the 2002 Cissie Leary Invitational. Ciochina was ranked No. 25 in singles and No. 14 (with Sanela Kunovac) in doubles in the East Region in the fall and won five singles matches during the Ivy League season to help Penn to a second place finish in the Ancient Eight. Dowd looks for this duo to turn up the heat one more notch to put Penn in an even better position come this spring.
"Caroline improved a lot during her first season with us," Dowd said. "She gained a lot of confidence playing in various tournaments during the summer and I expect great things from her this season.
"After making the transition to collegiate tennis, Raluca did a nice job for us last year as a freshman," Dowd continued. "She battled some injuries but I think she is recovering well and we're going to see good things from her as a sophomore. If she is healthy, she has the talent to compete for a spot at the top of our lineup this season."
Sara Schiffman rounds out the sophomore class. Although she saw limited action last season, she gained some good experience in fall and summer tournaments. Schiffman will be relied upon to help the incoming class of three freshmen acclimate themselves to collegiate tennis quickly and effortlessly. The newcomers, Felicia Curcuru (Manasquan, N.J./Wall), Amanda Jasso (Olmito, Texas/James Pace) and Ashley Lostritto (Old Brookville, N.Y./Friends Academy), all have excellent credentials and will make fine additions to the 2003-04 Penn squad.
"Sara exudes passion for Penn Tennis," Dowd said. "When you feel that strongly about something you can perform at a very high level, and I think she is close to making a break through with her skills. I really feel that her enthusiasm for the game and for the team are contagious and she will do a nice job of bringing the newcomers in and teaching them the ropes so that everyone will be a successful part of this team as soon as possible. I am very excited about the future of this program."
While there is always room for improvement, the Penn women's tennis team seems to be knocking on the national tennis door on an annual basis, and this year does not look like it plans to stray from the norm. The leadership and experience this team will provide Dowd should be second to none in the Ivy League, which is exactly what Penn plans to be.