STANFORD, Calif.- No. 12 Stanford (18-4, 8-2 Pac-12) will be making its 28th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Championships round of 16 when competition gets underway Friday morning in Urbana, IL.
Long considered the gold standard in women's college tennis, Stanford has won 16 of 31 possible NCAA team titles and captured 17 national championships overall when including the 1978 AIAW crown. The Cardinal owns a 125-16 all-time record in the NCAA Tournament.
NCAA Women's Tennis Championships - Round of 16
Friday, May 17 - 10 a.m. PT
Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex - Urbana, IL
Weather Forecast: 79 degrees, humid with scattered thunderstorms
Now the action heats up this weekend in steamy Urbana, Ill., as the nation's top 16 teams remain in the hunt for a national championship. Stanford's next hurdle will be No. 5 USC, as the Pac-12 powerhouses square off for a spot in the quarterfinals.
With that said, here are a few interesting storylines heading into Friday's match:
This One Will Definitely Be Earned
If Stanford ends up hoisting the trophy one week from today, it will have been well-deserved. That's because the left side of the NCAA bracket is extremely loaded. As if playing in arguably the best tennis conference in the country wasn't enough, the Cardinal could still match up with another Pac-12 rival in California (No. 8 seed, No. 8 ITA rank) after facing the Trojans. And of course, there's always top-ranked and No. 1 seed Florida, which is chasing its third straight NCAA crown. The first of Florida's two national championships came at Stanford's expense, with the Gators winning a 4-3 thriller in 2011 at Taube Family Tennis Stadium. However, Stanford had the first laugh, defeating Florida 4-3 one year earlier in Athens, Ga. Simply put, get ready for a grueling stretch of tennis.
A Closer Look At No. 5 USC
No. 5 USC (23-2, 9-0 Pac-12) joins No. 1 Florida as the only teams in the postseason draw with two losses or fewer. Winners of 15 in a row, the Trojans completed a perfect conference season and were crowned Pac-12 champions for the third time (two outright, one share) over the last five years. If you're trying to identify three or four schools who could win it all, the Pac-12 champ deserves a serious look. USC defeated Stanford 6-1 back on March 30 in Los Angeles and also eliminated the Cardinal from last year's postseason with a 4-2 victory in the quarterfinals. Stanford can reflect back to its heated rivalry from a few years back against then-postseason nemesis Baylor. The Lady Bears ended the Cardinal's season in 2008 and 2009 before Stanford returned the favor in 2010 (when Baylor was ranked No. 1) and 2011.
Bounce-Back Season For Ahn
In case you haven't noticed, Kristie Ahn has been rock solid in her return to the court by providing the Cardinal with a consistent weapon at the No. 2 spot. Who would have known? Ahn's All-American freshman season hit a bump in the road when a right ankle injury eventually sidelined her during the postseason. A left foot injury during Ahn's sophomore year then kept her unavailable for all but three matches, including the NCAA quarterfinal against USC in which she nearly scraped out a singles win. Fast forward to her junior year and it can be argued that Ahn (27-5 overall, 19-2 duals, 10-4 against nationally-ranked opponents) is playing arguably the best tennis of her career. Consider this: she's lost only twice since the calendar flipped to March. Nobody has worked harder than Ahn, and the results speak for themselves.
Dillon Making Most Of Playing Time
It's the last go-around for Natalie Dillon, who joined the Cardinal as a walk-on and spent the first two seasons working to become the best practice player possible for her teammates. But Ahn's injury last year opened up a spot in the lineup, and Dillon made the most of her opportunity to contribute by finishing 8-7 in duals. Dillon has continued to do the same as a senior, racking up a 15-12 record overall while going 8-7 in duals (6-6 at the No. 6 spot). The regular playing time has helped build Dillon's confidence and she's responded by clinching four matches, second only to Ellen Tsay (6) in that category. Not to mention, Dillon and fellow senior Stacey Tan are the only remaining pieces from Stanford's 2010 NCAA title team. And how many squads have that kind of championship depth at the lower part of their lineup?
Doubles Play Has Been A Strength
A team strength all season long, Stanford has claimed the doubles point in 20 of its 22 matches this year. Routinely grabbing a 1-0 lead has allowed the Cardinal to get a jump on its opponent. One reason for the success has been consistency within the lineup, as head coach Lele Forood has employed only four doubles combinations in dual match play. The No. 1 spot has been anchored by Ahn and Nicole Gibbs, who are ranked No. 8 in the nation after compiling a 16-3 record that includes six straight wins. Playing together for the second full season, the No. 2 pairing of Stacey Tan and Ellen Tsay is 29-7 overall and 20-2 in duals. The No. 3 duo of Natalie Dillon and Krista Hardebeck sports a 15-10 record and is 12-6 in duals. The only teams to win the doubles point against Stanford? Saint Mary's and USC.