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Thursday May 10, 2012Team-First Mentality Propels Will, Embree and Gators

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- On one court is the top-ranked women's player in all of college tennis. Junior Allie Will has lost just one of 22 matches over the course of the 2011-12 fall and spring, including a 9-1 mark in Southeastern Conference regular-season play. 

On another court is Lauren Embree, also a junior. All Embree did was roll to an unbeaten record in 10 conference singles matches, plus a perfect mark in 11 doubles matches on her way to being SEC Player of the Year for the second time in her career, just the second player in league history to win the individual honor twice. 

So who's the real No. 1 on the defending NCAA championship squad?

"Both of them," Coach Roland Thornqvist said. 

Literally. 

Thornqvist alternated his pair of standouts at the top of his team lineup throughout the season -- Will at No. 1 one week, Embree the next -- with each of playing at the top spot 10 times. 

"It's not a big deal at all," Embree said of the back and forth. 

"We handle it great," added Will.

Only one can play first singles for the upcoming NCAA Tournament (more on that later). Neither player, though, is concerned about being on the No. 1 court as much as being on the No. 1 team when the season wraps in two weeks. 

"They get it," Thornqvist said. "They're already the two most competitive players I have ever coached, so their focus is not to become tougher and more competitive. If I wanted that, I'd throw them into a competitive cauldron. Right now, they're focus is to improve skills, become better ball-strikers, work through mistakes, those kinds of things."

The things that help teams win championships. 

In a sport that lends itself to individualism, Will and Embree deserve credit for embracing the notion that the good of the many outweigh the good of the one. Like Thornqvist said, both players are worthy of competing at the top of the lineup; giving them each an equal opportunity was the right thing to do. 

And they've handled it the right way. 

"When you're on a really good team like this, you're bound to get a bunch of very competitive girls, but the way they've approached the whole thing, it really hasn't been an issue at all," sophomore Olivia Janowicz said of the Will-Embree relationship. "All of us are such good friends. We basically do everything together, and there are not a lot of teams that have what we have in terms of chemistry."

She paused. 

"We hear stories about other places."

This is, after all, tennis. Most players from a very young age are groomed to play for themselves. So in the collegiate forum, when introduced to the team transition, egos and jealousies are part of the deal. 

Thornqvist nipped any controversy in January when he sat both girls down and laid out his plan for the season. Even when Will dropped a pair of matches in February, Thornqvist did not deviate. 

He flipped. Then he flopped. 

"I wanted them to feel like I trusted them both," Thornqvist said. "They bought in immediately and it's really helped them both get better. They can support each other without worrying and saying, 'She won, I didn't, now what?' I think it's worked to our benefit. They can relax and go play." 

The second-ranked Gators (21-1) haven't played a match in a long time. By the time they take the Linder Stadium courts Friday at 2 p.m. against South Carolina State (19-0) it will have been 19 days since UF last competed against another team. By then, Florida's players will figure it was worth the wait considering it will mark the first round of the NCAA Tournament and the start of a national championship defense from a squad that returns every player from a year ago. 

UF, the No. 2 seed in the tournament, will face the Bulldogs, champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, in opening-round action for the third straight year. The winner gets either 36th-ranked Florida State (13-10) or 31st-ranked Washington State (18-5) in Saturday's second round at 3 p.m. 

If the Gators survive, they'll head to Athens, Ga., next week for the NCAA team, singles and doubles championships. 

Florida has won five national championships in its team history (1992, '96, '98, '02, '11), but never two in a row. Thornqvist, who has overseen the last two runs to the big trophy, has the talent and chemistry to achieve that elusive back-to-back milestone. 

And since winning their third straight SEC title April 29, the focus of the Gators during this stretch of dead time has been working hard to come to life at the right time. 

"I'm hoping to unleash all that energy we've built up," Thornqvist said. 

As always, it'll start at the top. No matter who is there. 

This time, it's Will's turn at No. 1, Embree's at No. 2. And per team tournament rules, players have to stick to their singles slot as long as they advance. 

"The competition is going to be so high, it's not going to make a difference what number we're playing," Will said. "Since this began, we've gone about it all with an open mind." 

Embree put it a somewhat different way. 

"We're really good at doing what we're told," she said. "And we really like to win." 

 

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