Mean Green's Growth Leads Them Into C-USA Tournament
North Texas Heads To C-USA Tournament Looking To Play Free, Aggressive, With Joy
NORFOLK, VIRGINIA -- When the North Texas tennis team's sophomore Haruka Sasaki walked off the court on Saturday after crushing her UT-Arlington opponent 6-2, 6-3, the quiet and shy Sasaki smiled and said `I was so nervous.'
The Mean Green's No. 6 player said she was nervous, because of her opponent's talent and she was executing her new playing style.
Sasaki, who has worked all year on coming out of her reserved and non-assertive shell, attacked her Maverick opponent, played near the net and was aggressive in earning points.
The win, which came in the team's final match of the regular season, was Sasaki's fourth in her last five and comes less than a week after she and head coach Sujay Lama had a heart-to-heart conversation in the middle of one of her matches.
Trailing 6-0, 4-0 at No. 29 Tulsa, Lama approached his modest sophomore to remind her what she and her team has been working on all year.
"He reminded me that I've worked really hard all semester on playing more aggressive," Sasaki said. "I think it was a turning-point for me. I think we as a team have played a lot better since then."
Sasaki fought her way all the back at Tulsa and nearly won the second-set before the match was clinched by the Golden Hurricanes.
As for her team, they've fallen in their quiet leader's footstep while overcoming an unusual amount of tests. They've dealt with injuries to more than half of its roster and faced a schedule that featured nearly every team ranked in the top 75.
But on Thursday, the Mean Green are at Old Dominion at the Conference USA tournament looking to use their adverse experience and attack the tournament and win their fourth conference championship in the last eight years.
"In order to grow you have to get out of your comfort zone," Lama explained. "And this season we've had to get out of our comfort zone so many times with so many illness and injuries but the beauty in that is we're growing up and that's what Haruka has done and our team."
Thursday, North Texas faces the No. 13-seed UAB in the first round of the conference tournament. The Mean Green ended the regular season with a dominating 4-1 win against UTA. They haven't lost the doubles-point since their match at Tulsa and are peaking right when Lama and the team wants to be.
"We went though a really tough stretch not that long ago but we stayed together," Lama said. "Those tough times are when it can all fall apart but we stayed together and we've come out of it stronger and have learned so much."
Sasaki's fellow classmate, Alexandra Heczey, has been right there with her. Heczey has found more consistency and focus later in the season and has won all of her matches this season in the last month.
Against UTA, no Mean Green player grinded out her match like Tamuna Kutibidze.
The junior who has won three of her last four matches, lost the first-set and trailed early in the second-set. She looked defeated and exhausted. But after sitting down on the bench and collecting her emotions, she pulled it out and won in three sets, clinching the match for the Mean Green.
"Beating UTA was huge," Lama said with exasperated eyes. "We'd played so well a couple days before at SMU but didn't get the result. But to have that feeling of winning when again we played for one another was massive.
Thursday, North Texas begins what they're calling `a new season.'
Trusting their teachings and practices from the entire season to come together as one and catch fire in the tournament.
"We are as good as any team in the conference," Lama said. "Our focus is to prepare for one match at a time. We want to play freely, aggressively and with joy."