A relaxed and laid-back air filled the court Wednesday at the Los Angeles Tennis Center during UCLA women’s tennis practice.
Rather than players getting down on themselves when a serve was missed or an error was made, jokes and laughter were shared among the team as it practiced its doubles play.
This lighthearted atmosphere may seem odd, however, considering that the team’s biggest tournament of the season – the NCAA Tournament – is just a day away.
“We are all just really excited,” said junior Catherine Harrison. “We are practicing hard, but at this point, we all just want it to be NCAAs already.”
The reason for the team’s eager yet easygoing attitude could have something to do with the fact that UCLA will enter the tournament with the odds stacked in its favor.
Ranked as the tournament’s No. 7 seed, the team has earned the home-court advantage for the first two rounds of competition taking place this upcoming weekend.
UCLA will first play an unranked Idaho team (15-8) in the first round Saturday. Provided that the Vandals do not pull an upset, the Bruins will then take on the winner of the unranked matchup between Northwestern (15-7) and St. Mary’s (14-10) on Sunday in the second round.
A healthy and motivated starting six works to the Bruins’ advantage. This lineup features the same top-six players who took home the national championship last year – including the nation’s No. 1 singles player, senior Robin Anderson, and the No. 3 doubles team of Harrison and junior Kyle McPhillips.
Harrison, who will be playing in the Bruins’ No. 4 singles spot, said the team’s experience and knowledge of the tournament gives UCLA the upper hand.
“It does in the sense that every one of us knows what’s coming,” Harrison said. “Everyone knows what to expect.”
Almost everyone, that is.
This year’s freshman class has yet to gain that experience. Instead, it will enter its first NCAA Tournament trying to live up to the hype of last year’s title team while simultaneously trying to take home a ring of its own.
“Of course, there is a ton of pressure and expectation, but at the same time, I try to use that and make it positive,” said freshman Kristin Wiley, who has seen time in the top-six lineup during the season when injuries plagued her older teammates.
Home-court advantage, a high-ranked seed and an experienced team will all play to UCLA’s strengths come Saturday and Sunday.
However, if the team continues to advance past the first two rounds, the road to the championship gets a bit bumpier, as competition could stiffen.
With a win on Sunday, UCLA has the possibility of facing last year’s tournament runner-up and this year’s No. 2-seeded North Carolina (27-1). A win in the third round could lead to a quarterfinal match against No. 4 Vanderbilt (19-6) or No. 5 Florida (21-3).
If UCLA find itself in the semifinal, the team may be forced to face No. 3 California (20-3), which it has yet to beat this season.
Whoever it is that ends up on the opposite side of the court from the Bruins, coach Stella Sampras Webster is confident that her team will continue to find success.
“We are a contender,” Sampras Webster said. “I want them to embrace that and to really get after it.”