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Women’s tennis at UNC, Duke, NC State seeking national title

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The winners of the eight Super Regionals advance to the NCAA team championships next Friday in Champaign, Ill. The Pack and Blue Devils would face each other if both advance.

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When NC State women’s tennis coach Simon Earnshaw weighed accepting the job in 2014, he didn’t consider Duke winning the 2009 national outdoor title and North Carolina reaching the 2014 national title match as reasons to run from it.

It’s part of what convinced him to take it.

“I wouldn’t be here if the other two weren’t doing well, because clearly that showed there was opportunity and the bandwidth to be another team involved in this,” Earnshaw said.

Brian Kalbas had a similar thought when he took over at UNC 19 seasons ago. The Blue Devils had reached the title match in 1998 and were established as the standard in the ACC.

“Competition breeds competition,” Kalbas said. “When I came on board, we tried to kind of get up to Duke’s level.”

Keeping up with the Joneses has elevated each of the Triangle schools into the top spots of the NCAA tournament, where they will each serve as hosts in the Sweet 16 this weekend.

The Tar Heels are the No. 1 seed and play host to No. 16 Florida on Friday.

The Blue Devils are the No. 3 seed and take on No. 14 Georgia on Friday.

The Wolfpack are the No. 6 seed and face No. 11 California on Saturday.

The winners of the eight Super Regionals advance to the NCAA team championships next Friday in Champaign, Ill. The Pack and Blue Devils would face each other if both advance. All three programs reached the Elite Eight last season, with NC State advancing to its first Final Four. They’re getting used to seeing each other in elite spaces.

“There’s a strong emphasis that the schools have put on women’s tennis that we’ve really never had before,” Duke coach Jamie Ashworth said. “And I think the three of us really push each other to get better and bring out the best in each other.”

The clearest signal that their successes seem sustainable is how the Heels and Pack progressed this season. Carolina lost three of its top four players since a season ago including Sara Daavettila, who was the nation’s No. 1 seeded singles player and had advanced to the semifinals. NC State also lost three of its top players including Anna Rogers, who was the No. 6 seed in singles and the highest ranked player ever in program history.

Neither program was “supposed” to be back in the top 10. Yet here they are.

“We thought we were in more of a rebuilding mode,” Kalbas said. “We’ve really shown everybody that we have tremendous players that are ready to step in and we’re not going to rebuild, we’re going to reload with the players that we have.”

Three of the top 12 ranked singles players are from the Triangle: UNC’s Cameron Morra at No. 5, Duke’s Chloe Beck and No. 9 and NC State’s Jaeda Daniel at No. 11.

The top five ranked doubles teams all hail from the ACC including the Wolfpack’s No. 1 duo in Daniel and Nell Miller. UNC’s Elizabeth Scotty and Fiona Crawley are ranked No. 2. Scotty won the national title in doubles last year with Makenna Jones, who graduated.

They set the pace for the ACC, which boasts nine of the top 32 ranked singles players nationally and 14 of the top 32 ranked doubles tandems.

“I’ve been at Duke for 25 years and you know there was a time when the conference did not prepare us for the NCAA tournament at all,” Ashworth said. “Now every match we play is an opportunity to get better and opportunity to really push ourselves.”

Marshall Happer, Kinston native and former US Tennis Association (USTA) executive director, said the change has been noteworthy.

“All the great college teams were in California and Florida, they were not in North Carolina or the ACC,” said Hopper, who now lives in Raleigh and just released the second edition of his book “Pioneers of the Game.” “Our teams have really come in and held their own.”

The hope is that the success of the three programs will help elevate women’s tennis on a grassroots level in the state. Between their three rosters UNC’s Sophia Patel, who is from Cary, is the only player from in-state.

Ashworth added that he’s only had two players from the state during his entire tenure at Duke.

“It is a little bit mystifying how we have three teams in this metropolitan area that are all top six at the same time — and Wake is Top 25 also — but as a state, we don’t seem to be producing players, outside of the off one, that are necessarily fitted to play at this level,” Earnshaw said.

Perhaps bringing another national championship to the Triangle this year would be just the spark that’s needed. As much as the teams compete against each other, they’re cheering, too.

“We definitely do push each other and and root for each other and support each other the best we can,” Ashworth said. “If it can’t be us, I would hope that another team from here or our conference could win the whole thing this year.”

CL Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.

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