LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- With one of the best seasons in the program's history behind them, the Covenant women's tennis team has their eyes set on accomplishing more in the 2017 season.
The Lady Scots, under fifth-year head coach John Hirte, open up the spring portion of their schedule on Saturday at regionally-ranked Birmingham Southern. First serve is set for 1 p.m. EST.
Covenant finished 15-6 with an 11-1 mark in the USA South a year ago and ended the year ranked regionally by both the ITA and the NCAA. All those accomplishments aside, Hirte is looking for his team to put the past behind and focus on the task ahead.
"Our biggest goal this year is to take what we learned last year and improve on it," Hirte said. "Last year was great, we set some records and did some things that had never been done before. This year is entirely new so we don't want to get caught looking back, but want to make it about this year's team and what we can accomplish."
Covenant enters the spring with a 2-0 overall record after picking up victories over Milligan and Snead State in the fall. The Lady Scots are ranked 18th in the ITA Atlantic South region poll and carry a 10-match regular season USA South win streak into the spring. The Lady Scots were also predicted to win the West Division of the USA South in the league's preseason coaches' poll.
The high conference and region rankings come with good reason. Covenant returns four of its regulars in the lineup, all of whom occupied the top four spots in the order a season ago. Three of those players were named to an All-USA South team.
Junior Aly Hall leads the group after finishing 12-2 at the No. 1 singles spot last year and earning first team All-USA South honors. Junior Annie DeLuca and senior Claire Luger were also All-USA South performers a year ago at No. 2 and 3 singles, respectively. Senior Gracie Smith holds the program's all-time singles wins record after collecting 11 victories a season ago. Luger and Smith were doubles partners at No. 2 last year and together hold the top spot for most career doubles wins in the program's history.
"I'm looking for more consistency out of that group," Hirte said of his top four returners. "Aly had a great year last year and I'm looking for her to improve on that. Annie was in transition to the No. 2 spot last year and comes into this year with more experience. Claire and Gracie have been stalwarts in the lineup the last three years and I'm excited about what they can do this year."
The other three returners for Hirte are juniors Jennie Spielman and Mackenzie Jones along with sophomore Masha Lanska. All three saw time in the lineup last season, with Spielman a regular in doubles, and Hirte expects all to contribute again this year.
With seven returners, Hirte's recruiting class consisted of just three players. Esther Eddy (Jacksonville, Fla.) headlines the group and the freshman has already made a mark picking up singles wins in the fall at No. 3 and No. 4 spots, while playing with Hall at the top doubles position. "Esther is someone who can come in and contribute immediately to this team," Hirte noted.
Morgan McCain (Orlando, Fla.) and Sarah Ragsdale (St. Louis, Mo.) are the other two incoming freshmen. McCain also played in both fall dual matches and picked up a crucial win at No. 6 singles in the victory over Milligan.
Covenant has made noise in the USA South over the last three years going a combined 30-6 during that stretch against conference foes. Being the preseason favorite in the division brings more attention to league members, but Hirte knows the challenge and expects his team to be ready.
"Our conference keeps getting tougher," Hirte said. "Every conference match we play, we'll have to bring our best. We have to prepare and respond well to getting everyone's best shot in the league."
After opening against Birmingham Southern, the Lady Scots face Millsaps, Rhodes and Hendrix during the weekend of Feb. 24-25. The home opener is set for March 1 against Oglethorpe, while the USA South opener is March 24 at home against Agnes Scott.
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