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ND Women’s Tennis: Lone senior Rafael ready for leadership role

Megan Finneran | Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A year after her team graduated three players, Kristen Rafael is ready for the challenge of being Notre Dame’s only senior.

“Every year, we are a team that works hard and is known for their ability to compete,” Rafael said. “We pride ourselves on making sure the other teams know that when you play us, you will get nothing easy.”

As a four-year letter-winner and team MVP recipient in high school, Rafael knew she was looking to play at a school where she could both focus on balancing tennis and academics. Since the recruiting process began, she always felt at home at Notre Dame. Rafael said she could not help but feel the pull of the family-like atmosphere of the team and the traditional aspects of the school.

“I thought that if I was going to play for a university, I wanted to make sure I was a part of that university,” she said. “That every time I stepped on the court, I wasn’t just playing for my team or my coaches, but for all of Notre Dame, for all of the students and the tradition.”

During her freshman year, the team did not perform up to its ability, but the memory of a less successful season has stayed with her for the last few years. As a sophomore, Rafael and the Irish went to the NCAA Final Four for the first time in program history. They returned again last year, but injuries held them back once again.

Now, as her last season with the Irish approaches, Rafael wants to change that.

“I would be lying to say I would not be dreaming of a national championship this year,” Rafael said. “Coming so close these past two years, and especially after last year’s loss, the hunger for achieving more is even greater.”

Unlike the lengthy roster of a football team, the tennis squad’s small group changes the dynamic of the team itself.

“If we were any bigger, I feel that we wouldn’t be as close as we are now,” she said. “We know the ins and outs of each other and are able to take time to support everyone on the team because there aren’t that many of us.”

Despite the fact that tennis, as a sport, relies heavily on individual performances, Rafael has found no negative competition during her time with the Irish.

“We are competitors, but we use that to push each other to become better players and better people,” Rafael said. “Where other teams seem that they are more concerned about winning for their own individual goals, we play as a team and for the team.