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Senior Sofie Oyen and the women's tennis team won't feel the pressure of being the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 seed this year.

Thursday May 8, 2014Planted Seed: Gators Taking Different Path Into 2014 NCAA Tournament

Senior Sofie Oyen and the women's tennis team won't feel the pressure of being the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 seed this year.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Eighth.

That’s where the Florida women’s tennis team is seeded heading into the NCAA Tournament this weekend.

Sound weird? It should.

For perspective’s stake, consider that the NCAA began seeding its tennis field in 1987 and over that last quarter-century the Gators have been seeded first in the bracket 12 times, second seven times and third or fourth another five times.

Only once have they been seeded lower than this present UF (19-5) squad that faces South Carolina State (13-5) in Friday’s opening-round action at Linder Stadium, beginning at 3 p.m.

So what does Coach Roland Thornqvist, winner of three NCAA titles in his 13 seasons, including back-to-back crowns in 2011 and ’12, think of these rather unusual circumstances?

“Actually, it’s kind of neat,” he said. “We have three seniors who have never been though something like this. I wouldn’t say it’s confusing them, but they’re certainly not used to it -- and that’s OK. I’m looking forward to seeing how they respond. This is a different perspective for us and we can’t take anything for granted. But, yeah, it’s OK.”

What makes it OK is that Thornqvist can scan the bracket and see a field as wide open as any in recent memory.

Florida may be seeded eighth -- its lowest in 25 tournaments, except for a 15 seed in 2009 -- but the record shows the Gators defeated 3-seed Virginia, the Atlantic Coast Conference champion, and had two match points against 2-seed and Southeastern Conference rival Alabama before losing 4-3.

Then again, Florida also was eliminated from the SEC Tournament by 10th-seeded Texas A&M.

Meanwhile, No. 1 overall seed and SEC champion Georgia lost a pair of regular-season matches to Alabama and Vanderbilt.

Oh, and Florida beat Vandy 4-0.

And then there’s defending national champion Stanford, which checks in as the tournament’s No. 11 seed. The Cardinal lost a regular-season match to Pac-12 rival California 6-1 last month.

Get the picture?

UF’s players do.

“You look at this year and it just seems that everybody has either beaten somebody or been beaten by somebody,” said senior Olivia Janowicz, a key cog on Florida’s ‘11 and ‘12 NCAA championship squads. “It hasn’t been like this since I’ve been in school. It’s like the seeding could have been done literally by flipping a coin.”

Added senior Sofie Oyen: “The last two years, we went in either as the 1 or 2 and with that comes a lot of pressure. I don’t really feel that pressure this year. It actually feels kind of good. We can just go in there and play tennis without all the expectations and see what happens.”

For the Gators, it’s a radical path, to be sure. Such has been their season. Thornqvist got an alert the 2014 campaign was going to be different in February when UF, with just eight dual-match defeats over the previous four seasons, went to Charlottesville, Va., for a tournament as the nation’s No. 2-ranked team and lost to 16th-ranked Northwestern.

Thornqvist didn’t panic, however. He assessed and had some real talk with his players.

“There’s a fine line between sort of downplaying expectations and recalibrating where you are versus taking the air out of your team. You don’t ever want to do that,” he said. “At the same time, with the parity the way it’s been this year, I think it’s important to be honest with your players and say, ‘Hey, if we don’t play well we can lose to more teams this year than the past three or four years.’ That’s OK. Our players accept that.”

Take Janowicz, for example.

Two years ago, she was a sophomore playing No. 6 singles for a team that ran roughshod through UCLA in the NCAA finals, winning 4-0.

“I was like, ‘That’s it?’ ” Janowicz recalled. “I want to win, but I also want it to be exciting.”

Last year, the top-seeded Gators fell behind 3-0 in the NCAA semifinals against Stanford, only to claw back into the match before losing 4-3.

Exciting? Yes.

Crushing? Absolutely.

Now comes an altogether different scenario.

The excitement possibilities are many.

“Depending on the day, anybody can beat anybody, and that’s been reflected by this whole tennis season,” freshman Kourtney Keegan said of her first foray into the collegiate postseason. “We may not be where we’ve been in past years, but we’re definitely going to try to be the one that comes out on top.”

The Gators may be absent this time of the so-called “flagship players,” as Thornqvist called them; the Lauren Embree, Allie Will and Joanna Mathers kind of players who galvanized the team the last several Mays as UF rolled deep into the tournament.

But not one person in the program feels another such run can’t happen again.

“It’s been a rewarding and fun year, despite the five losses, because everyone, from our seniors down to our freshmen, have been in the fight,” Thornqvist said. “It’s been new for them all, but it’s been good for us all. Now, let’s just go out there and see what happens.”

 

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