As the clear-cut favorite in the Southern Conference heading into the 2014 spring season, the Elon University women’s tennis team had high expectations after falling just short of a conference title in 2013.

After a program-best 21 wins in 2013, Elon advanced to the championship match of the SoCon Tournament, where it faced the College of Charleston, winner of the previous five SoCon titles.  The Phoenix, playing on its home court at the Jimmy Powell Tennis Center, fought back against the Cougars after trailing early but ultimately lost, 4-3.

In 2014, the Cougars left for the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), which opened the door for the Phoenix.  Since Elon will be leaving for the CAA in 2015, the feeling around the team was 2014 was the year to win.  But after an inconsistent start to the year, that feeling was nearly lost.

The Phoenix began the year 0-4 after losses to ranked teams in No. 54 Virginia Tech, No. 3 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, No. 4 University of Georgia and No. 55 Kansas State University.  The team quickly bounced back, reeling off an eight-match winning streak, but then dropped four of the next six matches down the stretch of the regular season.  

“We almost wanted to win too much this year and got tense and stressed out,” said senior Frida Jansaker. “There have been a lot of ups and downs, and there was a point in time when we were down, but that’s what makes a championship team — you overcome those thoughts and win.”

Jansaker described the team’s turning point as the 6-1 win over the University of North Carolina at Greensboro April 10.  The victory was Elon’s first against the Spartans since 2009 and sparked a five-match winning streak that ended with the Phoenix being crowned SoCon champions and Jansaker the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.

Following the defeat of UNCG, the Phoenix shut out Western Carolina University April 12 to finish the regular season and earn the No. 4 seed in the SoCon Tournament, setting up another matchup against No. 5 UNCG in the first round.  

Elon beat UNCG, 4-0, to earn a spot in the semifinal match against No. 1 Furman University, which had won 10 of the previous 16 SoCon titles.  The Phoenix squeaked by the Paladins, 4-3, and beat No. 2 Samford University April 19 to capture Elon’s first postseason championship since joining Division I in 2000.

Junior Barbora Lazarova was a key player in Elon’s championship run, winning all three of her singles matches in the SoCon Tournament and clinching the win over Furman after dropping the first set and falling behind 5-4 in the second set.

“In the [SoCon] tournament, we wanted to win, but we played without pressure because we knew that we had it in us,” Lazarova said.  “During the regular season, we had so much pressure on us, but we went to the tournament and just played and had fun, and that’s how we won.” 

Head coach Elizabeth Anderson, now in her 10th year at the helm, described the feeling around the veteran team — which will graduate three seniors — that reached its peak at the right time.

“It’s very rewarding,” Anderson said.  “All the hard work we’ve put in over the years has really paid off.  It makes everything worth it to see the smiles on their faces and how happy they were to win. It’s nice to see that.”

Despite what Jansaker called a “roller coaster” of a season, the hope that was present at the beginning of the season prevailed through the tough times.

“I always felt like we could win it. There were times where it was frustrating because it felt like we were so close, but it just hadn’t clicked,” Anderson said. “We still knew that we could do it so it was just a matter of figuring it out, and it made us hungrier to figure it out because we knew it was right at our fingertips.”

The Phoenix, ranked No. 75 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s (ITA) May 1 rankings, earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament as champions of the SoCon and will face top-seeded Georgia in the first round at 4 p.m. May 9 in Athens, Ga

The Bulldogs (21-4) rolled through the Southeastern Conference (SEC) with a record of 11-2 and captured the SEC Tournament title April 20 after beating the University of Alabama 4-0 in Columbia, Mo.  

The matchup against Georgia, which has three of the top 20 singles players in the nation, provides some familiarity for the Phoenix, which faced the Bulldogs in January at the ITA Kickoff Weekend.

“I feel like we’re playing the best tennis that I’ve seen us play, and we’re playing with a lot of confidence at this point, and that makes a big difference,” Anderson said.  “We know what to expect from Georgia — we’ve got to be ready to go from the very beginning — and I think we’re playing a lot better now than we were then so there’s definitely some positives there.”

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