On Tuesday afternoon, the Missouri women’s tennis team had practice outdoors. It’s one of the first signs that not only spring, but Big 12 Conference play is just around the corner.
With seven of their remaining eleven matches away from Columbia, preparing themselves for the sun and wind will be a priority if the Tigers want to win on the road. It’s something they have struggled to do this season.
So far this season, Missouri (8-4) is 1-4 in away matches, with three of those losses being to ranked teams in the Southeastern and Big Ten Conferences.
Although coach Blake Starkey could have easily scheduled 12 non-conference matches against schools with weaker programs, he is a firm believer that playing tougher teams will only make the team better in the long term and brace it for the strength of the next several opponents.
Starkey says that by scheduling these matches against major conference teams, he’s trying to build a “national schedule” that will earn Missouri a ranking and a spot in the NCAA tournament.
“For us to be quality, we need to beat somebody quality,” Starkey said. “If you don’t risk, you can’t ever gain.”
The same goes for individual players, who become better by playing stronger opponents. Freshman Mallory Weber and junior Jessica Giuggioli, the team’s No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, have had both success and failure in their matches against ranked opponents. Both won at Minnesota and dropped three-set matches at Iowa.
Making their opponents work hard for their victories is a step in the right direction.
“For (the team) to go out there and play them hard and challenge them makes our team better going into conference season,” Weber said.
The team firmly believes that the final scores of the losses and what actually happened in them tell two different stories. For example, the Tigers lost to then-No. 42 Iowa 6-1, but no doubles pairing lost by a margin greater than 8-5 and four of six singles matches went to three sets. The Tigers did not win any of the three-set matches.
Still, results are what matter in national rankings and potential tournament spots, something Starkey recognizes. He says he is excited about the team’s direction, but would prefer that the team had already found its success. To get there, he wants to develop more consistency.
“We need to put it all together,” Starkey said. He also said a crucial part of that will require better production at the bottom of the lineup. In the team’s four losses, MU has a record of 2-10 in the No. 4 through No. 6 singles spots.
The Tigers will continue to face challenges and hope at some point they will defeat a top team and make some noise in the national rankings.
“There’s a lot of good teams out there and we want to make sure that we’re one of them,” Starkey said.
Conference play for the Tigers opens at Colorado on Saturday, another team that has seen a national ranking this season.