NOTRE DAME, Ind. - The University of Notre Dame women's tennis team can stake a claim to being the best team in the history of the BIG EAST Conference. The Irish won 13 conference championships in their 18 seasons as a BIG EAST member, claiming runner-up honors in each of the five years they did not hoist the championship trophy.
Notre Dame players earned a total of five BIG EAST Player of the Year citations (award established in 2009), 11 BIG EAST Championship Most Outstanding Player scrolls, and longtime head coach Jay Louderback was an 11-time conference coach of the year from 1996 through the 2013 campaign.
Entering its first year as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Notre Dame is in a rare position of pursuing the league's top spot from within the pack. The new prospect had Louderback more than optimistic when he officially announced the 2013-14 Irish schedule earlier this week.
"The difference that we're going to have this year than in the past now joining the ACC is we have always frontloaded our schedule," Louderback said. "Our toughest part of the dual schedule has always been in the early spring, and now we begin tough early and it carries all the way through. We have much better matches, much tougher matches at the end of the year, which is something that is going to really help us."
A total of 11 teams on Notre Dame's 24-team spring slate qualified for the 2013 NCAA Championship, with 15 of the upcoming Irish opponents having finished in the final Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) top-75 rankings last season. In fact, 10 of the 14 Irish ACC foes on this season's schedule concluded 2013 as ranked teams.
"In the past, we would have a harder time moving up in the rankings at the end of the year because we just weren't playing tough teams," Louderback said. "This year, we get to the end and the ACC Championship is more or less a "baby" NCAA Championship."
The fall portion of the schedule gets underway with a pair of tournaments, the Wolverine Invitational (Ann Arbor, Mich.) and the Ball State Fall Invitational (Muncie, Ind.), taking place the weekend of Sept. 20-22. Notre Dame will send a split squad to each event, the only tournaments for the Irish during the month of September.
Select players will compete at the ITA All-American Championship qualifier Oct. 1-2 in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Those who qualify will participate in the main draw of the championship Oct. 3-6 at the Riviera Tennis Club. A similar format will follow at the end of the month, with the United States Tennis Association (USTA)/ITA Midwest Regional Championship (Oct. 10-15) at the University of Michigan Varsity Tennis Center.
Any qualifiers who emerge from the Midwest Regional will receive an invitation to the ITA National Individual Indoor Championships Nov. 7-10 at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y. Notre Dame will close fall team competition that weekend at the Western Michigan Super Challenge (Kalamazoo, Mich.) and the Dick Vitale Clay Court Classic (Lakewood Ranch, Fla.) Nov. 8-10.
After a two-month hiatus from the court, the Irish open the spring portion of the schedule with a home doubleheader against Western Michigan and IUPUI Jan. 18 at the Eck Tennis Pavilion. A matchup with Arizona State Jan. 25 on the first day of the 2014 ITA Kick-Off Weekend in Evanston, Ill., will set the stage for a showdown with either host Northwestern or Oklahoma State the following day at the Combe Tennis Center. Notre Dame caps the month with a home non-conference match against Illinois Jan. 31.
The Irish welcome in-state opponent Indiana to the Eck Tennis Pavilion Feb. 2 in the second of a brief two-match homestand. Following the ITA National Team Indoor Championships (Feb. 7-10) in Charlottesville, Va., Notre Dame travels to Michigan Feb. 15 as a final lead-in to ACC play.
For the first time, Notre Dame will play a regimented regular season conference schedule as a member of the ACC. The league determines postseason seeding based on conference records during the in-season meetings, a unique circumstance for the Irish after a long BIG EAST tenure.
"Now, those in-season matches with our conference opponents really do mean a lot," Louderback said. "The top four teams entering the ACC tournament get byes into the quarterfinals, so being in the top four is an advantage. The way you perform during the year in the ACC is going to show in where you've finished before the tournament. It's going to be fun, it's going to be great for us."
Georgia Tech travels to the Eck Tennis Pavilion as Notre Dame's first official ACC opponent Feb. 21, before the Irish travel to Miami (Fla.) Feb. 23 and Duke Feb. 28.
March begins with Clemson (March 7) and Florida State (March 9) making the trek to Notre Dame. The Irish then embark on a four-match road string, beginning out of conference at the College of Charleston (March 11) before stops at Boston College (March 16), Virginia (March 21) and 2013 NCAA Championship quarterfinalist North Carolina (March 23). Notre Dame returns home at the end of the month to welcome Marquette (March 26) and Wake Forest (March 30) for dual-matches.
The Irish come down the stretch in April, with three straight ACC home contests against Maryland (April 4), Pittsburgh (April 6) and Virginia Tech (April 11). Notre Dame finishes its regular season docket with a pair of road trips to North Carolina State (April 13) and Syracuse (April 19). Notre Dame will make its first appearance in the ACC Championship April 23-27 at the Cary Tennis Park in Cary, N.C.
While the conference tournament is nearly a full season away, Louderback said his team eagerly awaits the challenge of being one of the hunters as opposed to its traditional role of the hunted during Notre Dame's tenure at the top of the BIG EAST.
"We know going in that we probably won't be the favorites," Louderback said. "We would always go into the BIG EAST Championship and all we really did was defend, and I think since Miami left (in 2004) we were the one seed every year. You go in there and are just expected to win it, and there's a lot of pressure.
"If you count us, there were seven ACC teams in the top 23 last year. It's like a preview for the NCAA Championship, and you have a chance to help yourself with seeding at the NCAAs."
The first and second rounds of the 2014 NCAA Championship will be held May 9-10 on various campus sites. The final rounds of both the team and individual portions of the championship will be contested May 15-26 at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Ga.