UCLA women’s tennis will enter the Sweet 16 of the 2015 NCAA Tournament with the same top-six players who took home the national championship title last year.
When it comes time to step on the court, those six athletes will have the knowledge and experience of playing on a national stage.
The depth of the Bruins’ roster, however, extends past the same returning six.
Viable substitutes for the Bruins are freshmen Kristin Wiley and Terri Fleming, both of whom had time to adjust over the course of the season to the demands and expectations of being on a reigning national championship team.
“It was a lot different, at least pressurewise, because you’re used to the expectations of winning,” Fleming said. “But there is a different type of pressure when you come in and have to play for a team and not just for yourself.”
Fleming and Wiley had to learn to overcome that obstacle quickly.
In a season plagued with injuries, the Bruins were often forced to bench at least one of its top-six players. When the Bruins’ No. 2 singles player, sophomore Jennifer Brady, suffered a foot injury that had her sidelined for most of the middle part of the season, it was Fleming and Wiley who stepped up to fill that void.
This was something coach Stella Sampras Webster called a “blessing in disguise,” explaining that while the injuries have been difficult to play through, they have also allowed time for the freshmen to gain experience.
Both rookies had the opportunity to earn points for the Bruins. Some of their highlights came against some of the nation’s top contenders. Wiley won a straight-set match in UCLA’s 4-3 loss to No. 3 Cal, and Fleming won the final match against then-No. 18 Pepperdine to seal the Bruins’ 4-3 win over the Waves.
Wiley also made a consistent appearance in doubles play alongside her partner, senior Chanelle Van Nguyen.
While her contributions have aided in the team’s overall record of 20-4, Fleming said it was difficult for her to settle in and get comfortable early in the season.
“You just put so much pressure on yourself,” Fleming said. “At first, it really affected me and I wasn’t playing as well, but I started to just think, ‘Obviously, this isn’t helping, so you just have to calm down, take a deep breath.’ Once you get that out of your system, you can finally just play tennis like you know you can.”
Learning to deal with that pressure paid off for Fleming and Wiley this past weekend, when both players were given the opportunity to compete in their first NCAA Tournament.
With junior Kyle McPhillips sitting out to rest, Fleming played in the Bruins’ fifth singles spot Saturday against Idaho, where she delivered a winning performance and earned the Bruins their third point of the match, which would ultimately end in a 4-0 victory.
Wiley saw action in doubles and will continue to pair up with Van Nguyen in the team’s third doubles spot as the Bruins advance further in the tournament.
Overcoming adversity and anxiety is something that is synonymous for players in the NCAA Tournament, especially for newcomers, Sampras Webster said. However, she is confident that when it is either of the rookies’ time to step up, both will be ready to go because of the preparation and knowledge they have gained as members of the team.
“You never know when we are going to need them,” Sampras Webster said. “But I do feel so good because they have played all season, and so they will be prepared as far as match toughness.”
As the Bruins head to Waco, Texas, on Friday to finish their run for a second consecutive national title, the freshmen are looking to put the expectations and pressures that have engulfed them over the course of the season aside. Instead, they are focused on taking in the moment and ready to compete for what they have been working toward all season.
“I’m looking forward to the experience,” Wiley said. “Even with the expectations, I’m just excited to fight it out there with my team.”