ATLANTA--Coming off a landmark season the Georgia State women's tennis team is poised for success in its first season in the Sun Belt Conference in 2013.
Georgia State earned many accomplishments last year with junior Abigail Tere-Apisah breaking onto the national stage as the program's first ITA All-American. As a team, the Panthers played one of their toughest schedules in program history and went 11-7 with their third trip to the conference finals in the last four years.
The expectations rise in 2013 with the jump to the Sun Belt Conference as the No. 70-ranked Panthers, led by sixth-year head coach Miha Lisac, are the second highest ranked team in the conference. GSU competes in the ITA Kick-Off Weekend for a second-consecutive year and for the first time ever begins the season with a team national ranking, one singles player nationally ranked (Tere-Apisah, #29) and a doubles team nationally ranked (Tere-Apisah & Masa Grgan, #19).
GSU returns five starters from last season, including CAA Player of the Year Tere-Apisah, All-CAA Second Team Singles honoree Whitney Byrd and an All-CAA First Team Doubles pairing of Byrd and senior Maryna Kozachenko. Three newcomers join the team this season to add depth to an experienced and successful lineup.
"It's exciting to be preparing for the start of the spring season, we worked hard during the fall to prepare for this year," Lisac said, "We are continuing to take steps forward as a program and we are looking forward to the challenging schedule this spring starting with a very talented Syracuse team next Saturday."
The lineup begins with the acclaimed Tere-Apisah who earned numerous accolades in one of the best individual seasons in school history last year. Beyond earning ITA All-American honors by advancing to the Round of 16 at the NCAA Singles Championship, Tere-Apisah was the ITA Southeast Region Player to Watch, CAA Player of the Year and All-CAA First Team Singles. She finished the season with a national ranking of No. 38 and begins this year ranked No. 29.
Tere-Apisah bumped up her ranking with stellar play at prestigious tournaments in the fall season. She won two matches against No. 29-ranked Ecaterina Vasenina (USF) and No. 94 Elizabeth Kilborn (Ga. Tech) at the Southern Shootout, hosted by Georgia State. She then defeated No. 20-ranked Aeriel Ellis (Texas) in the consolation round at the Riviera/ITA Women's All-American Championships in Pacific Palisades, Calif. on Oct. 4. After that she advanced to the semifinals at the ITA Southeast Regional Championships, one of the toughest regions for women's tennis in the country. To close her fall, Tere-Apisah won her first-round match at the prestigious USTA/ITA National Intercollegiate Indoor Championships at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y.
"Abby continues to progress as a player and has cemented herself as one of the top 30 players in the nation," Lisac said. "Even though she has had success already Abby has not reached her potential yet. I believe that Abby's best tennis is ahead of her and she will continue to progress as a tennis player and a leader."
With the departure of the graduated Tereza Lerova, GSU must fill a void at the No. 2 singles position. Three notable candidates are seniors Whitney Byrd and Maryna Kozachenko and sophomore Masa Grgan, who are all coming off strong spring and fall seasons. Byrd, an All-CAA award winner last spring, went 12-6 last year including 9-4 in the No. 3 slot. Kozachenko rotated between the No. 3 and 4 positions to earn six wins and clinch three GSU victories. Grgan is coming off a stellar rookie season where she went 10-6 in the No. 4 and 5 positions.
"Masa, Whitney, and Maryna have had a good year of work thus far and I believe it will transfer over to the spring season," Lisac said, "We are taking a team approach in general but especially in singles this season. It doesn't matter whether a player is in the lineup for a particular match or which position she is playing, we are all working together as a group."
Sophomore Chaimaa Roudami returns this season after she also put together a stellar rookie campaign at GSU. The Casablanca, Morocco, native went 13-5 to finish second on the team in singles victories. The Panthers will also look to newcomers Jocelyn Ffriend and Linn Timmermann to provide depth this season. Ffriend joined GSU as a transfer from North Carolina prior to the fall and went 5-1 in singles play. Timmermann is a highly-regarded freshman that led the team with an 11-4 mark in the fall including a trip to the consolation final at the ITA Regionals.
"Chaimaa had a good season for the team last year and I don't see anything changing this spring," Lisac said. "Linn and Jocelyn have been very solid additions for our program. They are two of the hardest workers we have and I am looking forward to having them contribute this spring when we continue to prepare to take the program onto the national stage."
A staple of the GSU program under Lisac is strong doubles play. The Panthers struggled to find consistent success at the onset of last season but caught fire late by winning six of their final nine possible doubles points.
Georgia State leads with the formidable pairing of Tere-Apisah and Grgan. The two earned a No. 19 national ranking by defeating two nationally-ranked opponents in the fall. They knocked off No. 24-ranked Ecaterina Vasenina and Loreto Alonso of USF 8-3 at the Southern Shootout before winning an 8-6 match against No. 50-ranked Maho Kowase and Lilly Kimbell of Georgia at the ITA Regionals. They lost just one doubles match in the fall to the current No. 15-ranked pair in the nation.
"Abby and Masa have clicked from the first time they played together in practice," Lisac said, "I think they can continue to mature as a team and lead the team in doubles. Their biggest contribution will be continuing the play the way they did in the fall."
The Panthers have flexibility with their final two doubles spots. They can reunite the likes of Byrd and Kozachenko, an All-CAA First Team pair last year, or split them up between the No. 2 and 3 slots. Ffriend brings a strong doubles game to GSU after she achieved a No. 28 doubles ranking during her time at UNC. GSU can also count on strong doubles play from Roudami and Timmermann, who will each compete for spots in the doubles lineup.
"We have played good some good doubles during the fall and have flexibility as far as doubles pairings," Lisac said, "I believe that we are mature enough as a team to form different doubles combinations that can be successful, but we are most concerned about having a strong lineup overall and competing at every single spot."
For a second-consecutive season, Georgia State is slated to play one of its toughest schedules in program history. This year's schedule features 12 matches against teams that are nationally ranked in the preseason, including three of those matches at home.
The 70th-ranked Panthers start the 2013 season with a showdown against No. 70 Syracuse next Saturday (11 a.m.). The match will be played on the indoor courts at the newly-built Georgia Tech Tennis Center. GSU then follows that up with the ITA Kick-Off Weekend in Athens, Ga., where it is scheduled to play No. 40 Oklahoma State and either No. 6 Georgia or No. 73 Columbia.
The Panthers begin February with a match against No. 20-ranked Illinois on Feb. 2 at the Standard Club (10 a.m.). Next is a string of tough road matches at No. 69 Auburn (Feb. 9), at No. 38 Florida State (Feb. 17) and at No. 30 Georgia Tech (Feb. 21).
GSU then hosts three matches, including one against local-rival Kennesaw State on Mar. 1 (2 p.m.). GSU will also host its first annual VolleyFest Supporting Women's Cancer Care event in partnership with The Sport of Giving on Mar. 3 vs. No. 55-ranked Tulane (9 a.m.). The event will be an opportunity for participants to join the effort in the fight against women's cancer in the Atlanta area and to also get on the courts and compete in a variety of tennis formats.
The Panthers finish the season with seven road matches including four against nationally-ranked foes. GSU will compete in the Sun Belt Championships in Lafayette, La., beginning on Apr. 18.
"One of our long-term goals is to continue to improve our national ranking, and to do so we have to compete against the top teams in the country," Lisac said. "Our spring schedule is very challenging from the very beginning with Syracuse coming to Atlanta for our first dual match and then making a trip to Athens for the ITA Kick-Off Weekend. Our focus is on how we answer the challenges of a tough schedule and how we maintain our hunger and focus against tough competition throughout the season."
GSU is in the midst of preseason preparations for its match next Saturday vs. Syracuse. Visit the women's tennis page on GeorgiaStateSports.com for a preview of the match and check back all season for the latest news on the women's tennis team.