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Women’s tennis begins title chase after two-week wait

After a brief hiatus following the end of the regular season and the conclusion of the Pac-12 Individual Tournament, the Stanford women’s tennis team will begin its quest for a national title this Friday against Miami (OH) in its 32nd consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

Junior Nicole Gibbs (above) arrived on the Farm just one year after the Cardinal made a surprise run for the NCAA title in 2010. Now as the team's singles No. 1, she will lead the 12th-seed Cardinal in yet another championship bid as an underdog. (IAN GARCIA-DOTY/The Stanford Daily)

Junior Nicole Gibbs (above) arrived on the Farm just one year after the Cardinal made a surprise run for the NCAA title in 2010. Now as the team’s singles No. 1, she will lead the 12th-seed Cardinal in yet another championship bid as an underdog. (IAN GARCIA-DOTY/The Stanford Daily)

The lull in match play has given the players even more impetus to prepare for the pinnacle of their season.  Junior co-captain Nicole Gibbs, who spearheads the top of Stanford’s lineup in both singles and doubles, attested to the discipline of all the players at this point in the season.

“We’ve been really insistent upon people having good attitudes,” said Gibbs.  “We’ve even implemented a policy that if anyone has an unproductive response to something that happens in practice, we do self-enforced running.  This gets our attitude where we want it to be going into tournament.”

As the 12th seed, the Cardinal (16-4, 8-2 Pac-12) won’t have an easy pass to the finals.  It hopes to deliver an upset just as it did when it last won the NCAA Championships in 2010 as the No. 8 seed.

The NCAA draw includes 64 teams and the first rounds are played at various campuses around the country. Stanford will host Miami (13-12, 7-1 Mountain Athletic Conference) in the first round. If it successfully disposes of the RedHawks on Friday, the Cardinal will take on the winner of Rice (20-4, 2-1 Conference USA) and Pepperdine (12-11) on Saturday.

Gibbs anticipates Miami to be a formidable opponent, considering that the RedHawks won the MAC Championship Tournament 4-3 over Bowling Green.  This will be Miami’s third NCAA appearance, the last being in 2010.  Of the three tennis programs, the Cardinal is really only familiar with Pepperdine, who it beat in a 5-2 match in February.

“They’re a really gritty team, and definitely not a walk-through,” Gibbs said of Pepperdine. “We know a little bit about Rice. They’re probably a bit deeper than Pepperdine is, but it’s kind of a shot in the dark.”

If the Cardinal makes it out of the regional this weekend, it would potentially come up against USC, who it lost to 6-1 in March, in the Sweet 16.

“USC is one of my personal top picks in terms of its level of play going into the postseason,” Gibbs said. “Florida is consistently tough, and Georgia is playing really well this year. Those are the teams we are most weary of but also most excited to potentially play in tournament.”

Gibbs, fellow junior co-captain Kristie Ahn, junior Amelia Herring, senior Stacey Tan, senior co-captain Natalie Dillon and sophomore Ellen Tsay have all experienced NCAA play before. Stanford’s two rookies, freshman Krista Hardebeck and freshman Lindsey Kostas, will witness their first collegiate postseason.

“My advice to them is to be aware that anything can happen when it comes to NCAAs,” Gibbs said. “A lot of players don’t find their best tennis at NCAAs. It’s about being grittier and tougher than the team you’re playing.  They’re so tough and have been doing so well, but their best tennis may not come. It’s about who fights harder.”

Gibbs recalled playing Florida’s Sofie Oyen at the No. 3 spot her freshman year.

“She had kind of a non-stellar regular season, but she was someone who I felt threatened by. We had a really competitive match and I was really nervous.  Learning to navigate nerves is critical to success,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs clearly drew on her freshman year experience in her sophomore year postseason run, winning both the NCAA singles and doubles tournaments with then-partner Mallory Burdette. She hopes to repeat that this year but isn’t the only Cardinal representative looking to snatch an individual title. Ahn and Hardebeck will also make appearances in the 64-player NCAA singles draw. The duo of Gibbs and Ahn and the pairing of Tsay and Tan are seeded in the 32-team doubles draw as well.

The Cardinal will play Miami this Friday at 2 p.m. at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium.

Contact Chrissy Jones at chrissyj “at”

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