By Jeff Owens/Photo by SC Athletics
A year ago, the South Carolina women's tennis team won 19 matches and had its best season since 1994, earning a chance to host an NCAA Regional.
It didn't go as planned as the Gamecocks won their first-round match against Winthrop before getting upset by Georgia Tech.
They are itching for the chance to redeem themselves as South Carolina will host a regional again this weekend. The No. 14 Gamecocks will play North Florida Friday at 1 p.m. at the Carolina Tennis Center. If they win, they will take on the winner of Wake Forest and Texas (10 a.m. Friday) on Saturday for a chance to advance to the NCAA Sweet 16 at Georgia.
"We hosted last year and it didn't go our way in the end, so that is a big thing. We have little bit of a chip on our shoulder," junior Hadley Berg said. "We're excited to get another opportunity this year to turn things around and get to Athens."
A year ago, in head coach's Kevin Epley's fourth season, the Gamecocks finished 19-8 overall and fourth in the SEC at 9-4. They nearly matched that record this season, finishing 18-7 and 9-6 to earn another chance to host the first and second rounds.
"Our goal was always to host, because it's such a big advantage," junior Hadley Berg said. "I think everyone is really excited that we reached that goal and have that advantage."
Though last year's team was South Carolina's strongest since 1994, Epley feels even better about this team entering the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks finished strong, winning eight of their last 11 matches, including seven in SEC competition.
"I think we are in a better place than we were this time last year," said Epley, who is 82-49 in his five years at South Carolina and has led the Gamecocks to the NCAA Tournament all five seasons. "Last year I think we got real high with some wins early in the season and we kinda crashed at the end. This year has been much more even.
"I think they are fired up and optimistic. I think we are playing our best tennis of the year right now."
Cline, who earned All-American honors with Berg in doubles last year, sees the team peaking at the right time.
"This year, I think we have a lot left in us," she said. "Last year around this time, I think we were kinda physically and mentally exhausted and were kind of at the end of our abilities, I think. We keep talking about how we have so much left in our tank, talent-wise, physically, mentally, spiritually as a team, which is really exciting because I think we haven't even reached our full potential."
Berg, who has 134 career wins in singles and doubles, leads the Gamecocks with a 27-7 overall singles record and 19-2 in Dual matches. Freshman Silvia Chinellato is 23-11 (16-5 in Duals) and Brigit Folland is 25-6 (17-2). The trio gives South Carolina three strong singles lines at 4, 5 and 6.
Ingrid Gamarra Martins, who is ranked No. 46 in the nation, is 18-13 overall and 6-5 in Duals while Mia Horvit, 52nd nationally, is 22-11 overall and 11-10, giving the Gamecocks a strong duo at 1 and 2 singles. Horvit was named to the SEC All-Freshman team and second-team All-SEC.
While South Carolina has struggled in doubles this year, it is led by the team of Berg and Cline, who are ranked 25th nationally and were an All-American doubles team last year.
Epley, who has led his team to the NCAA Tournament in each of his 13 years as a college coach, says this is his best and deepest South Carolina team. It calls its a "feisty team" that wins with "our spirit, our competitive energy, our fight (and) our willingness to work a little bit harder than our opponents."
Though it has uncharacteristically struggled in doubles, the Gamecocks have been strong enough in singles to contend in the SEC and nationally.
"We haven't found the right combinations (in doubles), had some issues with some execution," Epley said. "Luckily, we have done pretty well making up for that deficit in singles and have played very well in singles."
It had some big SEC wins down the stretch, including a big win against Kentucky in which Berg and Cline appeared to regain their form.
"Now we feel like we are firing on all cylinders," he said.
"We have been through a lot of matches," Berg said. "The SEC is tough, and it set us up pretty well for NCAAs. We are excited to get out there and it's time to go for it."