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Tennis’ road to a repeat continues against North Carolina

With the win over No. 3 Virginia in its NCAA quarterfinal match on Saturday, No. 11 Stanford defeated the highest-seeded team that it will face the rest of the way in the tournament, regardless of how far it advances. But the Cardinal will be the first to tell you that seeding is the least important metric in their mind.

That’s because last season, when Stanford chugged through the tournament and won the national title, the Cardinal brandished the No. 12 seed. And this year, with a Final Four berth in hand and wins over the No. 6 and No. 3 teams in the tournament, Stanford is the owner of the No. 11 seed. And not only has the lower seeding given the Cardinal tougher matchups, it has also given them increased motivation to succeed in this tournament.

“We’re letting teams know that are seeded ahead of us that we don’t belong at 11, let’s just put it that way,” said head coach Lele Forood.

(KAREN AMBROSE HICKEY/stanfordphoto)

Freshman Taylor Davidson (above) is among the freshman trio, including Carol Zhao and Caroline Doyle, that has only dropped a combined three games — and no matches — in the team’s four NCAA Tournament contests. (KAREN AMBROSE HICKEY/stanfordphoto)

The next step on that run will pit the Cardinal (20-2, 8-2 Pac-12) against No. 7 North Carolina (28-5, 12-2 ACC) with a berth in the national title match on the line. And while Stanford hasn’t been a traditional underdog with its No. 11 seed throughout the tournament, the Tar Heels will likely provide the stiffest competition that the Cardinal have seen this tournament.

It all starts on top at the number one singles position, where Stanford’s third-ranked Kristie Ahn will rendezvous with the top singles player in the country in freshman Jamie Loeb. The sensation made an immediate impact in the collegiate game with her 49-2 record this season and has only lost to players ranked in the top 10. She has not yet surrendered a single set during the NCAA Tournament — all against ranked opponents, including two in the top 10.

She is paired atop the singles lineup by freshman Hayley Carter, who is ranked as the No. 5 singles player in the country and brings a remarkable 45-6 record to the table to face off with sophomore Krista Hardebeck at number two singles. It’s certainly not a favorable draw for Hardebeck, who has struggled in her last two matches against the No. 23 and No. 32 singles players in the nation, losing both in straight sets and only winning a combined nine games in those four sets.

In addition, the Tar Heels bring two of the nation’s best doubles pairings to the table, with Loeb and Carter pairing up to form the nation’s third-ranked duo at number one doubles and sophomore Whitney Kay and junior Caroline Price holding a No. 13 ranking.

Although the Cardinal’s top two doubles pairs are ranked lower at No. 10 and No. 50 nationally, Ahn and freshman Carol Zhao on court one will be looking to take advantage of the recent struggles of their counterparts from North Carolina — Loeb and Carter needed a tiebreak to win their match in the round of 16, while they lost their last match in the quarterfinals against the top pair from Alabama.

Regardless of whether the Cardinal can get the doubles point, however, the real swing in the matchup will come from the Cardinal’s youth on the backcourts — something that will look to give Stanford an upper hand if recent results are any indication.

The freshman trio of Zhao, Taylor Davidson and Caroline Doyle has been absolutely paramount to the Cardinal’s success this tournament, with their consistency and solid play acting as an anchor to the back of Stanford’s singles lineup and essentially guaranteeing three singles points for Stanford every match.

None of the freshmen have lost a singles match through the course of the tournament so far, and, in fact, have only dropped a combined three games in the four rounds of play that have passed. With Zhao ranked No. 21, Davidson ranked No. 50 and Doyle ranked No. 57 in the nation, they will all be heavy favorites in their matches against a top-heavy North Carolina singles lineup that doesn’t feature a ranked player below the number three slot.

In addition, junior Ellen Tsay, ranked No. 54 in the country, will likely jump at the opportunity to face an unranked opponent at number four singles and get back on track after dropping two consecutive tough decisions in her last two matches.

Given the success of the freshmen and the top-heavy North Carolina lineup, Tsay’s match and the outcome of the doubles point will look to be crucial in the ultimate decision. Although Stanford has claimed 19 doubles points in its last 22 opportunities, the Tar Heels will likely be one of the bigger obstacles to carrying that point that the Cardinal will face all tournament.

Regardless of who it faces and the rankings of its opponents, however, what matters for Stanford right now is building off of the considerable momentum that its last two matchups have given it and entering the match with confidence in its abilities.

“Our players are inspired by each other, and they’re ecstatic at where we’re at and they’re excited to get to the next match,” Forood said.

The match against North Carolina will take place at 10 a.m. today, with the winner advancing to the national title match against the winner of the match between No. 5 UCLA and No. 8 Florida.

Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Do-Hyoung Park

Do-Hyoung Park '16 honestly isn't quite sure what he does for The Stanford Daily anymore, apart from the fact that he still writes a lot about football, gets cranky at the sports editors and scares away the new freshmen. He also writes for (or has written for) The Bootleg, Sports Illustrated and MLB.com and has been a four-time Managing Editor at The Daily. After graduating in June with degrees in Chemical Engineering and Computer Science, he's begrudgingly staying on for his master's in Chemical Engineering as well. Please feel free to bother him at dhpark 'at' stanford.edu.