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Youthful tennis teams will need to overcome several ranked squads to win league

New look men’s team off to best start since 2007

Junior number one Zack McCourt says this team is among the best Princeton has ever had, and so far the stats back him up. The Tigers have not lost a step from last year, despite the departure of Princeton legend Matija Pecotic ’13, as well as solid contributors Matt Siow ’13 and Matt Spindler ’13 and the loss of sophomore Jonathan Carcione and senior Dan Richardson to a year off. Ranked 55th, they got off to a 5-0 start, the program’s best since 1979. Even with a close loss to 40th-ranked Columbia in the ECAC tournament, Princeton still has its best record in seven years at 6-1.

“Luckily we have three really good freshmen this year,” McCourt said. “They are all really talented and compete really well. There’s a certain fearlessness that young players have with nothing to prove, just fighting and playing. The only thing missing from their game is experience.”

A fearless, competitive mindset is something McCourt says coach Billy Pate has stressed to his players this year.

“We try to always be positive and be our best and fight our hardest in every match. We give our opponents no mental advantages, take advantage of opportunities and compete down the stretch. There hasn’t been any emphasis on winning, just competing.”

The three aforementioned freshmen are Thomas Coulatti, Alexander Day and Joshua Yablon, who have settled into the two, three and four spots. Day and Yablon have been especially dominant with a combined 11-2 spring record, though the trio sported identical 8-4 fall records. Yablon and Coulatti have also shown themselves to be a force in doubles, sitting on a 5-0 record out of the third slot.

McCourt, who played mostly in the two spot last year, has inherited top dog status from Pecotic. He had a solid fall season, defeating two ranked players en route to a 12-8 record and an appearance in the final of the Lakewood Ranch Invitational in Sarasota, Fla. These feats were enough to garner him a national ranking of 119 coming into the spring, although he hardly feels it does him justice.

“I believe I should be ranked top 20 or 30 in the country. I definitely don’t think my ranking is representative of my ability.”

Leadership on the team comes courtesy of senior captains Augie Bloom and Dan Davies. Both were used primarily in doubles last year, though never in the same pair. It took until three weeks ago for them to finally unite, but it has been a fruitful relationship, as the duo sports a 6-1 record playing mostly in the second spot. The two will also round out Princeton’s singles lineup this spring.

The Tigers went 5-2 in the Ivy League last spring and beat a whole slew of good teams both in and out of conference, including 4-3 victories over the 40th and 45th-ranked squads and 5-2 wins over 51st and 54th Cornell and Yale, all on the road. Princeton reached as high as 43rd in the ITA rankings but lost a crushing 4-3 season-ending decision to Columbia at home and missed the NCAA tournament.

The team will have its hands full in the Ivy League this spring, as an incredible six teams have made their way into the ITA Top 75. As of February 18, defending champion Harvard is highest at 24th. Columbia and Dartmouth follow in 34th and 52nd, respectively. Princeton, Cornell and Yale all took slight falls this week to 60th, tied for 65th and 75th, respectively. Harvard remains ahead of Columbia, despite the Lions’ 4-0 sweep of the Crimson in the ECAC final last weekend. Individually, the league has five ranked singles players, led by number 11 Winston Lin of Columbia. Ashok Narayana and Max Schnur, two more Lions, are the tenth-best doubles duo in the nation, leading three ranked Ivy League pairs. Despite its competitive league, Princeton has its eyes set on an NCAA bid, which can be earned by either winning the Ivy League title or earning an at-large bid to the 64 team tournament.

“We want to be one of the best squads in the country,” McCourt said. “The Ivy League championships are not the end goal. They’re more like a mini-goal as part of the big picture, although in past years they’ve been the primary objective.”

Paradoxically young and experienced women’s team has high hopes for spring season

With only seven girls and one senior on last year’s team, these Tigers are in the enviable position of having many returners and just one senior. Only Monica Chow ’13 graduated from last year’s 4-3 fourth-place Ivy League squad that ranked as high as 62nd in the country. Princeton has alternated wins and losses thus far this season, losing all three games to ranked opponents and comfortably beating four unranked opponents. The then-69th ranked Tigers most recently placed third at the ECAC tournament, beating Dartmouth and Brown, but falling 4-1 to then-52nd ranked Columbia.

“We’re playing well,” junior Lindsay Graff said. “We played Columbia closer than the score indicates. It showed us we’re right there with the top Ivy League teams.”

Graff is unquestionably Princeton’s best player, having garnered unanimous first team All-Ivy honors in 2013. She went 10-7 last spring at the top spot and holds a 5-2 record there so far this year, with her only losses coming against ranked opponents. She was out for two months this fall with a knee injury and lost her national ranking, but is determined to get it back.

“It was disappointing to miss the fall season, but it didn’t derail me at all. The spring dual season is more important to me anyway. Individually, I’d like to be one of the top players in the league, but it’s hard to think about individual success when you’re so focused on the team. I just want to set a good example for my teammates.”

Sophomore Amanda Muliawan was on her way to a fantastic rookie campaign with an 8-1 record out of the two slot, before injury ended her season before Ivy League play. She remained sidelined for the fall, before returning to play against top-ranked Stanford. She has started off a bit shaky, going 1-3 in singles and 0-4 in doubles, but Graff has confidence that she’ll be back on top by Ivy League play.

The team’s lone senior is Katherine Flanigan, who played mostly in the number three singles spot last year. But, like her teammates, she suffered an injury to her left hand that has limited her effectiveness. Her timeline for return is uncertain, but she could be back before league play starts. Filling in nicely for her is freshman Alanna Wolff, who earned herself a 62nd national ranking after going 10-2 in the fall.

Princeton’s doubles play has been subpar in the early going, as the team has won just 29.4 percent of its doubles matches. The lone bright spot has been the freshman duo of Caroline Joyce and Dorothy Tang going 3-0 in the number three position.

Just as on the men’s side, the Ivy League race is crowded for the women, with three teams currently ranked and Princeton only recently falling out of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association top 75. Thirty-fifth ranked Columbia leads by one spot over Yale, and Harvard is 68th. Individually, Columbia’s Kanika Vaidya has the highest Ivy ranking at 57, though the league is wide open with the graduation of two-time conference player of the year Nicole Bartnik, also of Columbia.

“We’re looking to take the Ivy title. The team is the strongest it’s been in my three years,” Graff said. “I’m confident we can win at every position with our depth. If we can get our work ethic to coincide with the talent we have, an NCAA bid is not out of reach.”

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