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Big Ten among nation's best conferences in women's tennis

BY PATRICK MASON | MARCH 30, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Big Ten had six teams — counting Nebraska — ranked by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association at this point last season, and only two of those were ranked in the top 25.

But the conference has seen an explosion of talent and strong play this season. Eight teams are now nationally ranked, and four are in the top 25. Every Big Ten team except Michigan State has been ranked at one point during the season.

Iowa women's tennis head coach Katie Dougherty, who has seen her team as high as No. 58 this season, said last season's relative down year in terms of rankings can be explained by injuries suffered by key players in the league.

The strong play from Big Ten teams this season has placed the conference as the third-strongest in the country. The SEC and ACC are the only conferences with more ranked teams; they have 10 apiece.

"It's great for our conference," Dougherty said. "Last year, we were in a position where we got to the Big Ten season and couldn't really help each other get into the [NCAA] Tournament because no one was ranked high enough. But that's not the case this year, which is a great thing."

Hawkeye senior Sonja Molnar has never advanced to the NCAA Tournament in singles, but she said she feels she has a chance this year because of the high level of talent in the conference. No. 115 Molnar is 2-3 so far against ranked opponents this season.

"It's a really good opportunity," she said. "Typically you would only face around two or three ranked athletes in the Big Ten, but with the addition of more ranked teams comes more ranked singles and doubles players. That gives us more opportunities to face and beat that high-quality player, which we all came here to do."

Tennis is usually associated with outdoor play; when the weather becomes nice, people play tennis. So when teams can attract players because of pleasant year-round weather, it becomes harder for the Midwestern schools to recruit top athletes. Eight of the top 10-ranked teams represent schools located in Florida, Georgia, or California.

But the Big Ten has found recent success in recruiting strong athletes with a little help from an unlikely source.

"Big Ten schools have some brand recognition because of football and basketball," Dougherty said. "They constantly recruit from different parts of the country, and it's a big reason athletes know what Iowa is now.

"A lot of good players come from a lot of different regions; where players were being recruited to California, Atlanta, and Texas, they are now coming up north to our schools."

The Iowa squad has a diverse roster with athletes coming from Guatemala, Scotland, Canada, and various locations throughout the country.

Molnar — an Ontario, Canada, native — said her decision to play tennis at Iowa was an easy one to make.

"There were a lot of factors," said Molnar, who will receive a business degree from the Tippie College of Business in May. "The main thing is the great balance between athletics and academics. Tippie is great, and there are also a lot of high-quality players and teams in the Big Ten, which made the decision pretty easy."

Freshman Morven McCulloch, who was recruited from Scotland by Dougherty and Iowa assistant Jesse Medvene-Collins, said she knew of the Big Ten as a top conference and wanted to play with and against skilled athletes.

"My friend told me about the school and the conference, so that got me interested," the freshman said. "And since I didn't have time to visit, Jesse came to me, and he was really nice and told me about all of the opportunities I'd have."

Follow DI women's tennis reporter Patrick Mason on Twitter.


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