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Saints find themselves in uncharted territory, set sights on further success

| Friday, May 21, 2021

“If I would have told you ‘Yea, we’re gonna finish second place,’ I would’ve been a liar.”

Head coach Eric Mahone seemed to be in shock just looking back at how far the Holy Cross Saints women’s tennis team had come.

“We didn’t win a match our first two years,” he said. “Every match we went into, we were playing a team we had never beat.”

Mahone said he knew the talent they had coming into this year, citing the newcomers as the biggest difference maker. They had one of the nation’s top recruiting classes in Jabeen Urbanek, Helga Lopez and Anna Beer, alongside “pseudo-freshman” Clara Ruedinger — who only got to play in two matches during last year’s season, shortened due to COVID. Still, the team’s goals were modest.

“First goal was just to make the conference tournament, to finish above .500 record,” Mahone said. “We eclipsed all of those goals.”

The team would, in fact, go on to finish the season 13-6 and 6-1 in conference play. They even made it to the conference tournament finals, eventually losing to top-10 ranked Cardinal Stritch University to close out the season.

When asked if there seemed to be a turning point in the season, Mahone recalled a matchup with Saint Francis (Illinois).

“They were picked to finish second [in the conference], I was just hoping, at that moment, that we would finish 6th,” he said. “We ended up pulling out a 4-3 win with one of our freshmen, Jabeen, winning in the third set, and from there we just got on a roll.”

Mahone also noted the difference in confidence levels following this match as a catalyst for success throughout the remainder of the year.

“They beat everyone they were supposed to, and then some,” he said.

Turning around a program is hard enough in and of itself, but the pandemic certainly complicated it further. Mahone said staying physically healthy was a big concern for the team.

“With how small our team was this year … we had no margin for error. If we lost one of our starters, we were playing short,” he said.

The team’s chemistry helped navigating this challenge.

“Our team chemistry is phenomenal, the girls are all really good friends … our team GPA is 3.5, so we just emphasized staying healthy,” he said.

This turnaround did not go unnoticed. Helga Lopez and Jabeen Urbanek were both voted first-team All Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference in both singles and doubles. Lopez was even voted CCAC Freshman of the Year. The orchestrator of the success also got some recognition: Mahone earned Coach of the Year honors in the CCAC.

Looking ahead to next year, expectations are higher than ever, but Mahone is still focused on the improvements that need to be made. Addressing inexperience, for instance, is at the top of his list.

“Hopefully COVID will allow us to play quite a few matches next year,” he said. “We’re hoping to have one of the biggest schedules in the country next year, in terms of number of matches, to kind of make up for what we missed out on this year.”

While it is great to bask in this year’s success, the team knows it’s not at the pinnacle of its potential yet. They have their sights set on a conference championship and a bid to nationals in the near future. 

“It’s a good year, we’re on our way up,” Mahone said.

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