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Cardinal begin national title defense at Taube

This weekend, the No. 11 Stanford women’s tennis team (16-2, 8-2 Pac-12) will begin its national title defense, as the Cardinal welcome three teams to the Taube Family Tennis Center for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

(LARRY GE/The Stanford Daily)

Senior Kristie Ahn (above) will look to help lead the Cardinal to a second consecutive national championship, starting on Friday on the Farm. Ahn, along with freshman Carol Zhao, also earned the No. 9 seed in the NCAA doubles draw. (LARRY GE/The Stanford Daily)

Stanford, entering its 33rd consecutive tournament, has drawn Quinnipiac (13-10, 8-0 MAAC) in the first round and will face the winner of the match between No. 21 Tulsa and No. 53 Long Beach State if it advances.

Stanford is coming off a less-than-satisfactory showing at the individual Pac-12 tournament in Ojai, California, where no singles player made it past the quarterfinals in the main draw. There was one highlight of the weekend, however, as the No. 9 doubles pair of senior Kristie Ahn and freshman Carol Zhao came away from the tourney with a runner-up finish.

Now, as team play resumes, the Cardinal have an opportunity to make up for a third-place conference finish and to win a second consecutive NCAA title. As the eleventh seed, Stanford will certainly face tough competition down the road, which could include Pac-12 rival No. 6 Cal in the Round of 16.

That said, the Cardinal entered the tournament at No. 12 last year, but fought their way through to a national title. The squad spent the first month of the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation, and there’s no reason they can’t reclaim their place on top.

The team believes it too, and after finishing off the regular season with a team loss to Cal, there’s plenty of motivation to recalibrate and step it up for the NCAAs.

“These NCAAs, it’s a whole other mindset compared to dual matches. You can’t lose. If you lose, you’re done,” said freshman Taylor Davidson.

Despite the high stakes and the team’s relatively low seeding, the team is overwhelmingly excited at this point, and with good reason. Stanford’s entire lineup qualified for the singles portion of the tournament, and Ahn/Zhao made it into the doubles draw as the ninth seed. As a result, the whole team will fight together for the title, including the three freshmen — Zhao, Davidson and Caroline Doyle — who have been rock-solid in the rotation all season long.

In some ways, the whole team making it in will give the tournament — especially on the individual side — an air of normalcy as all the Cardinal hang together. With the NCAAs, though, the team mentality is markedly different than it was at the end of conference dual play or even in the Pac-12 Individual Championships.

“You can just feel it; there’s some kind of electricity in the air,” Davidson said. “You can just tell that everyone is going to do what they need to do in order for us to have the outcome that we want.”

That outcome, of course, is a championship, and that goal has consumed the team every day since the end of the regular season. The team has put up a countdown to the tournament on a whiteboard in their locker room, below which they have written, “How will you make yourself better today?” It’s a motivational reminder that keeps them focused on the most important phase of the season.

The biggest challenge for Stanford may actually be maintaining focus through the first rounds against lower-seeded teams they haven’t faced before. Quinnipiac, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion, is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011 after receiving its conference’s automatic bid.

“It’s kind of like a test to see just how badly we want it,” Davidson said. “[Either] we blow them away or it’s like, ‘Oh, we weren’t ready like we thought we were.’”

Bobcat junior Jacqueline Raynor, who spent the season at the number-one doubles and singles spot for the Bobcats and finished with one of Quinnipiac’s best dual records at 13-7, leads the team coming into the postseason. However, if the Bobcats’ overall middle-of-the road performance from conference play continues, they should pose little threat to the Cardinal.

If all goes according to plan and the Cardinal do blow their first opponent away, the team will begin second-round play on Saturday, where a victory will send them on to Athens, Georgia, for the Round of 16. The individual portion of the tournament — for which the bracket has not yet been released — will begin May 21 in Athens separately from the team component.

The road to the postseason has been long and somewhat bumpy of late for the Cardinal, but the squad may be primed to peak at just the right time.

“It’s what we’ve been playing for this whole year,” Davidson said. “We’re all pretty excited.”

The Cardinal’s first-round matchup against Quinnipiac is set for 2 p.m. on Friday at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium, shortly after the 11 a.m. contest between Tulsa and Long Beach State.

Contact Fiona Noonan at fnoonan ‘at’ stanford.edu.