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Jan. 24, 2008

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After finishing the 2007 spring season with its second-best Southeastern Conference record in school history at 8-3, the Gamecock women’s tennis team kept the momentum going throughout the ensuing fall campaign. The numbers tell the story of just how successful the fall was for South Carolina, as the six-person roster went a combined 68-26 (.723) in singles matches and 29-17 (.630) in doubles. Combined, the Gamecocks won 69.3 percent of the matches they played over the course of six individual tournaments from September to November.

“With the number of matches we won, it was really outstanding,” 25-year veteran head coach Arlo Elkins said. “We were very successful at the tournaments we were in, and we won flights at every one of them.

“I can’t remember the last time we had this good of a fall. One of the pleasing things, too, was the top of the lineup. We’ve always done really well at the middle and bottom of the lineup, but I think we competed really well at the top of the lineup this year. Usually, it takes those girls a little longer to get going at the top, and I thought the girls we had at the top played really well right from the start.”

Junior Gira Schofield, who has played every dual match of her career in the Garnet & Black at the No. 1 singles position, compiled an 11-5 record in singles. In nine of her 16 contests, her opponent was ranked in the top 100 in the nation and she scored a victory in four of those matches. Ranked 36th nationally to start the fall, Schofield won the top singles flight at Carolina’s Southern Intercollegiate Championships in October by defeating teammate Ana Marija Zubori in three sets in the final. Schofield concluded her fall as a finalist at the SEC Fall Coaches Classic in Auburn, Ala., the following weekend. During her run at the event, the two-time All-SEC Team honoree knocked off 20th-ranked Amanda Taylor from Vanderbilt 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Schofield’s fall success translated into a career-high ranking of 26th to start the spring season. The previous spring, she joined Lynn-Yin Tan as the only Gamecocks in school history to achieve first-team All-SEC honors. Her 17-16 record in singles included a 6-5 mark against the SEC’s best at No. 1 singles, and she defeated players who went on to earn season-ending singles rankings of 16th, 38th, 43rd, 46th, 73rd, 112th and 116th. Schofield appeared in the NCAA Singles Championship for the second year in a row, as well as the SEC Academic Honor Roll.

“One of the things Gira possesses that separates her from a lot of other players is her ability to fight in a match,” Elkins said. “She never gives up, no matter what the scoreboard says, and she can outwork her opponents for a win. Gira has become a smarter player as well with two years under her belt. I would expect nothing but another strong season from Gira.”

Zubori entered the fall with a national singles ranking of No. 77. In addition to being a finalist at the Southern Intercollegiates, Zubori won her singles flight at the Furman Fall Classic in late September. She played some of her best tennis in the championship match, beating Vanderbilt’s No. 27-rated Catherine Newman 6-4, 6-1 for the title. Zubori had one other triumph versus a ranked player during the fall and finished with an 8-5 slate.

As a freshman in 2006-07, Zubori boasted an impressive 31-6 record, the most wins in one season by a Gamecock since the 1989-90 season. During the majority of South Carolina’s SEC matches, she played the No. 2 singles position and went 5-2 and was 8-3 in league matches overall. Her performance was good enough for a place on the All-SEC Second Team and she made the SEC Freshmen Academic Honor Roll as well. Entering the spring with a career-high ranking of 73rd, Zubori will be a key component to the Gamecocks’ success playing in the top half of the singles lineup.

“The numbers Ana put up as a freshman speak for themselves,” Elkins said. “She had one of the most successful freshman years of any player I’ve ever coached. The level of talent Ana has makes her a threat to beat anybody in the country. If she can stay consistent and finish matches strong she’ll be very tough to beat.”

The lone senior on this year’s squad, Megan McGavock, rebounded from a disappointing and injury-riddled junior season to lead the team in wins during the fall thanks to a 15-2 record. She won all of her matches at the UVa Invitational to start the season and then claimed her singles flight at the Wildcat Invitational in Evanston, Ill., in early October with a 6-4, 6-4 triumph over Alexis Conill from host-institution Northwestern. After going 3-1 at the Gamecocks’ home tournament, she raced through her flight at the SEC Fall Coaches Classic with wins against players from Vanderbilt, LSU, Auburn and Kentucky.

“The thing that helped Megan more than anything is the fact that she’s a senior now and she wants to really go out with a bang,” Elkins said. “She has recommitted herself to what she wants to do tennis-wise and what she wants to do for the team. Not that her commitment was lacking in the past, but I think when you’re a senior you want to see the team do well and in turn, you want to reach your personal goals as well.”

Along with Zubori, junior Natasa Vuckovic was nearly a guaranteed point for the Gamecocks in dual matches last spring. Her 19-3 record was tops for the team and earned her second-team All-SEC praise for the second year in a row. Vuckovic’s steady and consistent played carried over to the fall and translated into a 10-4 record. The native of Novi Sad, Serbia, won seven matches in a row at one point during the fall, a stretch that included her winning the A-2 singles flight at the Southern Intercollegiate Championships. Vuckovic’s crafty play helped her in the final of Carolina’s tournament against a more experienced player from Armstrong Atlantic State, as she rebounded from a first-set loss to win 7-6(5), 6-4 in sets two and three.

“Natasa is really a fun player to watch,” Elkins said. “Her style of play involves hitting lots of slices and changing up the pace on her opponents frequently. She knows how to wear a player down and is very intelligent on the court. Natasa should have another outstanding year.”

Florida State transfer Suzanna Mansour posted a solid fall in her first semester as a Gamecock, especially when one considers she had not played a collegiate match in nearly a year when the season began. The junior won two of three matches at South Carolina’s first tournament and grabbed three victories in four contests at the Wildcat Invitational. At the final event of the season in Auburn, Mansour battled her way through a couple three-set matches against players from Kentucky and Ole Miss before bowing out in the semifinals of her flight to put her record at 10-6.

Miljana Jocic, known to her teammates as “Miki” and one of South Carolina’s two freshmen on the roster, wasted no time displaying her talent en route to the team’s second-best record at 14-4. After winning all three matches at the Virginia tourney, she tacked on three more victories at the Wildcat Invitational. Jocic won two consolation matches while in Evanston that began a nine-match unbeaten streak. In winning the B-2 singles flight at the Southern Intercollegiates, Jocic lost a total of just seven games in four matches while winning 32. At the SEC Fall Coaches Classic, Jocic won matches over foes from Kentucky, Ole Miss and Georgia before suffering a 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 setback to Tennessee’s Samantha Orlin in the semifinals of her flight.

“We tried to recruit at a higher level last year and managed to get two excellent players in Suzie and Miki,” Elkins said. “Suzie spent some time at Florida State and was one of the better players there. She is an excellent player and was very highly recruited and highly ranked in the nation coming out of high school. She was a little rusty during the fall, but once that rust fell off, you could see she played really well at the end.

“Miki was on the Serbian National Team and was a very highly ranked player for that country,” Elkins continued. “She just lacks match experience, and that’s why we tried to play an extra tournament in the fall. She played really well; 14-4 is pretty good. Miki will be in the mix for a place in the middle or bottom of the lineup.”

A late addition who arrived in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 11, Jelena Rajic joined the Gamecocks after a successful career competing on the International Tennis Federation Junior Circuit. She reached a singles ranking of No. 351 in the world at one point as a junior and was as high as No. 355 in doubles. A member of the Serbian National Team, Rajic won one ITF singles title and a doubles championship as well.

“Jelena is a very talented player and we’re looking forward to seeing her compete,” Elkins said. “It will take a little time for her to get going, I would suspect. In my experience, when a player comes over to the U.S. for the first time in the middle of the school year, she needs some time to get adjusted and figure things out. Once Jelena does that, she’ll be a contributor.”

The Gamecocks used the same doubles tandems during the fall at every event except the season finale. Jocic and McGavock went 8-4 together and won the B-1 flight at the Southern Intercollegiate Championships, however, after Mansour and Vuckovic went 5-7 as a duo, Elkins paired Jocic with Vuckovic and Mansour with McGavock. Both combinations were effective in Auburn, as Mansour and McGavock reached the championship match of flight B and Jocic and Vuckovic posted a 3-1 record as well.

The one team that stayed consistent throughout the spring was Schofield and Zubori, and for good reason. Entering the fall, the Gamecock team held a ranking of 23rd after reaching a high of No. 18 during the spring. Schofield and Zubori notched a 10-3 record together and were 5-0 against regional teams. Even more impressive was the fact that they defeated every ranked team they faced and three of the four were ranked in the top 10 while the other was among the top 25.

As a team, the Gamecocks’ two signature wins of the fall came from the Schofield/Zubori grouping. After a first-round victory at the Furman Fall Classic, Schofield and Zubori topped No. 10 Caitlin Whoriskey and Zsofia Zubor from Tennessee 8-3. Whoriskey and Zubor went on to win the Riviera/ITA All-American Championships, the first of three Grand Slam events in collegiate tennis. To win their flight at Furman, Schofield and Zubori downed No. 2 Federica van Adrichem and Ani Mijacika of Clemson 8-6. All of those wins culminated with a spring ranking of ninth in the country.

“The main thing we tried to talk about with Ana and Gira, even going back to last year and I think we still need to work on it with them, is consistency of play,” Elkins said. “In the fall, they had some really good wins and some matches they lost that I thought they should have won, so consistency has always been kind of a problem with them. A lot of times, especially last year, they got up in matches and couldn’t always close them out, so that’s what we’re focusing on trying to do.”

Competing in the SEC gives South Carolina a challenging schedule by default. Carolina begins the year at home Jan. 25 playing Troy at 2:30 p.m. and then College of Charleston on Jan. 30 at 5 p.m. The Gamecocks then travel to Cambridge, Mass., to take on Harvard on Feb. 2 before returning home to face Furman and Winthrop on Feb. 6 and 13 at 5 p.m.

The Gamecocks have seven consecutive matches versus 2007 NCAA Tournament teams from Feb. 22 to March 13, and six of the squads advanced to at least the second round. South Carolina plays N.C. State at 2 p.m. Feb. 22 at Maxcy Gregg Tennis Center in Columbia and then hosts intrastate rival Clemson the following day at 1 p.m. USC opens Southeastern Conference play at home the following weekend versus Kentucky and Vanderbilt on Feb. 29 and March 2 to complete a six-match homestand.

A pair of SEC contests start a four-match stretch for South Carolina away from Columbia, first in Athens, Ga., against Georgia on March 7. The Gamecocks then travel to Knoxville, Tenn., to face the Lady Vols of Tennessee two days later. Carolina will spend its spring break the following week in Utah taking on BYU on March 13 and Utah on March 15.

South Carolina ends its season with seven straight SEC matches starting with Mississippi State at home March 21 at 2 p.m. The Gamecocks then travel to Oxford, Miss., to play Ole Miss on March 23. The final two home matches of the season come March 28 and 30 against LSU and Arkansas at 2 and 1 p.m. USC wraps up the regular season on the road April 4 and 6 at Alabama and Auburn and then faces Florida on April 12 at home at 1 p.m.

“With our SEC schedule and nationally ranked non-conference teams, we have a tremendous opportunity to compete against the nation’s best,” Elkins said. “In turn, our schedule gives us a chance to reach our lofty goals of a high team ranking and SEC finish and qualifying individual players for national tournaments.”

Auburn is set to host the 2008 SEC Tournament over April 17-20. All 12 teams compete in the tournament with the top four teams from the regular-season standings earning first-round byes. First- and second-round NCAA Tournament matches are scheduled for May 9-10 at 16 campus sites to be determined when the field is announced. Tulsa will host the round of 16 and beyond, as well as the NCAA Singles and Doubles Championships from May 15-26 at the Michael D. Case Tennis Center in Tulsa, Okla.

With a great first half of the season finished, it is easy to get excited about how far the Gamecocks may go this spring. Couple with it the tradition of South Carolina’s 13 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, a statistic that ranks as the 11th longest active figure in the country, and 2008 has the potential to be one fans of the Garnet & Black will remember for a long time.

“With the fall we had, we’re really looking forward to the spring and having a really good season,” Elkins said. “If everything falls into place this could be one of the better teams I’ve had in 25 years of coaching, so I’m very optimistic about the spring and really looking forward to it.”