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Somerset, NJ -- Quinnipiac returned to the top of the Northeast Conference (NEC) women’s tennis ladder a year ago, and according to league coaches, it will be difficult to unseat the defending champs in 2012. The Bobcats were voted as the NEC preseason favorite, earning eight first place votes.
2011 NEC runner-up Fairleigh Dickinson claimed the remaining three first place nods and were tabbed second in the poll. Sacred Heart and LIU Brooklyn, who were both NEC Tournament semifinalists last April, tied for third. Mount St. Mary’s was voted fifth, ahead of Robert Morris in sixth and Saint Francis (PA) in seventh. Monmouth landed in the eighth spot, followed by St. Francis (NY) in ninth and Wagner in tenth. Bryant is ineligible to compete in the NEC Tournament until 2013 and is not included in the poll.
The spring season is already underway at a number of schools, all in preparation for the 2012 NEC Championships this spring. The event returns to the Mercer County Tennis Center in West Windsor, NJ on April 20-22. The winning team will earn the NEC’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament field.
2012 Northeast Conference
Preseason Coaches Poll
1. Quinnipiac (8)
2. Fairleigh Dickinson (3)
3. LIU Brooklyn
5. Mount St. Mary’s
6. Robert Morris
7. Saint Francis (PA)
9. St. Francis (NY)
First place votes in parentheses
The key to a Quinnipiac repeat is the quick maturation of its five-deep freshman class. The Bobcats lost three All-NEC players from a stacked lineup, but the cupboard is far from bare for five-time NEC Coach of the Year Mike Quitko. Junior Sarah Viebrock (Carmel, NY/John F. Kennedy Catholic) and sophomore Lavinia Cristescu (West Hartford, CT/Kingswood-Oxford) were both first team All-Conference honorees last season at the #4 and #6 flights, respectively. Viebrock won 18 matches on the year and was 6-1 in league play, while Cristescu posted a 5-1 NEC mark. Junior Rachel Cantor (Short Hills, NJ/Millburn) also earned postseason plaudits, teaming with the now graduated Adrienne Markison to collect second team doubles accolades. Jacqueline Raynor (Garden City, NY/Garden City) has provided a spark in her freshman season, taking home NEC Rookie of the Month honors for September. The most successful NEC women’s tennis program of the last decade, Quinnipiac will look to match Mount St. Mary’s league record of seven conference titles this April.
In pursuit of the program’s first league crown since 1988, Fairleigh Dickinson has reached the NEC title match in each of the past two seasons. The Knights took Quinnipiac to the brink last spring, before falling 4-3 in a memorable championship match. Veteran head coach Ira Miller has all the ingredients in place for another title run in 2012 as the Knights are loaded with seasoned talent, including four returning All-NEC players. Seniors Elmine Botes (Heidelburg Gauteng, Rep. of South Africa/Hoer Volkskool and British International Distance College) and Julia Prantl (Beneditktbeuern, Germany/GUS-Gymnasium Bad Tolz), along with junior Egzona Morina (Prishtina, Belgium/American School of Kosova) are two-time NEC all-stars. Botes ranked first in the conference a year ago with 24 victories and was a second team pick at #1 singles. Prantl, the September NEC Player of the Month this past fall, earned first team accolades and claimed 20 victories, while Morina was a second team honoree who finished 2010-11 with 16 wins. The trio combined to post a 14-3 record against NEC opposition. Irina Dementyeva (Moscow, Russia/W 91) was one of the NEC’s top rookies a year ago and was yet another FDU second team honoree after ending her first season with a 22-13 record. Junior Anna Rapoport (Moscow, Russia/#1239) is FDU’s latest international import. She ended the fall season with an 8-1 record and was the October NEC Player of the Month.
LIU Brooklyn had its two-year NEC title run snapped in a semifinal setback to Fairleigh Dickinson last April. The Blackbirds are young with two-thirds of its roster underclassmen, but two-time NEC Coach of the Year Asi Phillips does return a couple of key pieces in juniors Taysha Blessington (Sydney, Australia/Roseville College) and Aleksandra Pavlovic (Uzice, Serbia/Sports Gimnazium). Blessington, an All-NEC honoree as a freshman, led the Blackbirds in victories last season, and shared time with Pavlovic at the #1 flight. Look for sophomore Lisa Maas (Norden, Germany/Middle Tennessee St.), a transfer from Middle Tennessee State, to make an impact. She led the Blackbirds with six victories during the fall campaign.
Sacred Heart has reached the NEC semifinals in each of the last three years under head coach Mike Guastelle. The perennial contenders sport a nice blend of youth and experience this season. Seniors Delaney Downing (Englewood, CO/Cherry Creek), Kate Donnelly (Centerville, MA/Barnstable) and Kristina Chao (Needham, MA/Needham) combined for 35 singles wins in 2010-11 and the #3 doubles tandem of Downing and Donnelly earned All-NEC honors for the second year running. Last year’s revelation was then-freshman Gabi Kaldan (New Brunswick, NJ/New Brunswick), who racked up a team-best 19 victories. Freshman Nicole Rydzewski (Maspeth, NY/St. Francis Prep) led the Pioneers in the fall with seven wins.
Mount St. Mary’s and head coach Phil Hammond have four starters back in the fold this season, including sophomore Samantha Pinchoff (Sylvan Lake, MI/West Bloomfield). Pinchoff recorded 12 wins as a freshman competing at the #2 flight, but has moved up to the #1 spot this season. Juniors Kelly Conroy (Tallahassee, FL/John Paul II) and Renee Deane (Cape Coral, FL/Cape Coral) come off outstanding fall campaigns. Conroy posted a 7-2 record, while Deane checked in with a 6-2 mark. Junior Carly Landini (Newark, DE/Archmere Academy) earned All-NEC recognition at #3 doubles last season along with Emma Haley, who has graduated.
Nearly the entire roster returns for head coach Jeff Layman and Robert Morris. The Colonials took a step in the right direction in 2010-11, and with six upperclassmen, could be one of the surprise teams in the NEC this season. RMU’s top performer last season was Carolina Mourao Teixeira (Rio De Janeiro, Brazil/Rio De Janeiro), who finished her freshman campaign a perfect 4-0 in conference play and 10-6 on the year playing primarily out of the #2 spot. Look for her to move up to the #1 flight this season, with junior Carla Limon (Cordoba, Mexico/Cordoba) (8-8 in 2010-11) taking over the #2 poisition.
Second year head coach Paul Tobin has big plans for Saint Francis (PA), and with seven freshman, he has the chance to build the program from the ground up. First year players have occupied up to five starting spots in the lineup, led by Shivani Patel (Leicestershire, England/Repton School) and Lucy Jasso (San Luis Potosi, Mexico/Instituto Potosino) splitting time at the #1 and #2 flights. The team’s lone senior is Devyn Sarver (Mount Clemens, MI/Fraser), who led the team in victories a year ago.
Monmouth will look to break into the NEC’s upper tier this season, with a number of season veterans flanked by an array of promising freshmen. At the helm of the program is longtime head coach and recent Monmouth Hall of Fame inductee Patrice Murray, who returns her most productive performer from last season in sophomore Brooke Verdiglione (Englishtown, NJ/St. John Vianney). The #2 flight player led the Hawks with an 11-8 record. Freshman Ashley Sandler (Jericho, NY/Syosset) tied for the team lead in victories in the fall, playing at the #3 position.
Former All-NEC player Arthur Velnik has set his sights on rejuvenating the St. Francis (NY) program. Seniors Ewa Opala (Czestochowa, Poland/Escola Ipse (Barcelona)) (#1 flight) and Arianna Van Sluytman (Hollis, NY/Phillips Academy) (#2 flight) are the top returnees for the Terriers and finished one-two in wins in 2010-11.
Wagner has undergone a makeover under second year head coach Joel Javan with four freshman added to the mix this season. Rachel Jurgielewicz (Downington, PA/Downington East) has taken over at the #1 flight in her first season and posted a pair of victories in the fall. Juniors Nikki Arnold (Bethlehem, PA/Liberty) and Catharine Scavelli (Staten Island, NY/St. Joseph Hill), who was the team MVP last season, will provide veteran leadership.
Bryant is ineligible for the NEC Tournament until the 2012-13 season, but Barbara Cilli's team is loaded with talent. The Bulldogs return a host of key competitors from last season, including reigning NEC Player of the Year Claudia Hidalgo (Guayaquil, Ecuador (Unidad Educativa Delta)). The junior went 5-0 against league rivals a year ago and finished 16-9 on the year.