Missouri tennis team making difficult transition to SEC

Thursday, March 14, 2013 | 6:55 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The Missouri football team isn’t the only one making a transition into an elite conference.

The Missouri tennis team is also making the adjustment to the Southeastern Conference, which is the top tennis conference in the country. Six SEC schools are in the top 17 of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association women’s team rankings.

Friday's Match

Missouri (6-5, 0-4 SEC) 

at Arkansas (6-8, 1-3)

WHEN: 1 p.m.

WHERE: Fayetteville, Ark. 

SEC football is known for a faster, stronger and more physical brand of football. SEC women’s tennis is similar, as the players are stronger, more aggressive and more motivated, according to Missouri senior tennis player Maria Christensen.

“There is no doubt we are playing a lot better tennis now than in the Big 12,” Christensen said. “The players are just more professional and they are more focused.”

The Tigers (6-5, 0-4 SEC) came into the season at a disadvantage with only six players on the team. Most college teams carry eight players, but coaching changes at Missouri have resulted in smaller recruiting classes. Missouri head coach Sasha Schmid says the positive of only having six players is that everybody plays and everyone has a role. However, a smaller team has made the first season in the SEC even tougher.

“You can’t sit anybody out if they aren’t performing on the court,” Schmid said. “Each person has to take the responsibility upon themselves to do their best. It has been different and a challenge.”

Schmid, who is in her second season as Missouri's coach, is used to transitioning to new opportunities.

“It was a learning curve at Missouri to get used to the system, the girls and the Big 12, which we handled pretty well,” Schmid said.

The skill, parity and depth of the SEC have made the adjustment to the new conference different from her first year at Missouri.

“The transition to the SEC has been more of a challenge because of the level of tennis,” Schmid said. “We have already learned a lot of lessons that has made us tougher and made me tougher as a coach.”

The Tigers have realized they need to push themselves to compete in the SEC. The team has grown physically and their talent level has improved this season. However, there is one part of their game that Schmid hopes the Missouri players can improve on.

“The last thing to catch up is the mental aspect and the belief (to win),” Schmid said. “That’s coming and is one of the great gifts that the conference will give us.”

Christensen has noticed that most SEC players are mentally strong and have one thing on their mind.

“When the players come in on the court, they come with the attitude that they are going to win and they are more intimidating,” Christensen said. “They have been there for awhile, they know what they’re doing and they have played top tennis all the time.”

The Tigers have an important weekend ahead as they travel to Arkansas (6-8, 1-3) for matches on Friday and to LSU (7-7, 0-4) for matches on Sunday.

“These are two teams that are in our wheelhouse to go after and get a win,” Schmid said. “We need to and really hope to get all six girls playing well at the same time.”

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