When the LSU women’s tennis team had its 2020 season halted because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Tigers had a 10-3 record, were ranked No. 12 nationally and tied for third in the Southeastern Conference standings.
To their credit, the Tigers have not only managed to pick up where they left off, they’ve managed to continue their climb in the national rankings to No. 9 – matching a program high of five years ago – and completed their best regular season in SEC play in 30 years and a fourth-place showing.
LSU (14-4) looks to capitalize on the momentum its created this season, including four wins to close the regular season, when the fourth-seeded Tigers begin play in the SEC tournament at the University of Alabama at noon Wednesday in the quarterfinal round against either Mississippi State or Tennessee.
“We were saddened by our season getting cut short due to how well we started in the SEC,” LSU co-head coach Michael Sell said. “With that sadness came a lot of inner confidence within our team of what we could accomplish had the season gone on. That confidence started last year into this year and has really helped this team believe they can beat anyone on the other side of the net.”
With its entire team back, including the return of senior Paris Corley who was granted an additional year of eligibility by the NCAA because of COVID-19, LSU has a blend of experience with senior Taylor Bridge and Corley leading the way, along with contributions from sophomores Safiya Carrington, Maggie Cubitt and Nina Geissler along with freshman Samantha Buyckx.
“(Co-head coach) Julie (Sell) and I both felt this team had the ability to earn a top four seed in the tournament,” Michael Sell said. “That was a goal of ours and to achieve that is a testament to the girls and their confidence in each other. It’s something our program hasn’t done before so I’m thrilled for this team to accomplish that.”
LSU won its first seven matches of the spring that included two SEC wins over Kentucky and ninth-ranked Vanderbilt.
The Tigers navigated their way through what proved to a difficult stretch between Feb. 26-March 12 with two wins in five matches – a span that included losses to No. 13 and second-seeded Florida (4-2) and No. 3 ranked and top-seeded Georgia (4-0).
LSU also split its next two matches– taking a 4-2 home win over No. 15 Tennessee and dropping a 4-0 match to No. 17 Texas A&M – before reeling off four consecutive wins over No. 41 and Alabama (4-0), No. 21 Auburn (4-3), No. 30 Arkansas (4-0) and unranked Missouri (4-1).
The Tigers finished with a 9-4 record in SEC competition, representing their highest number of wins in league play and best finish since 1991 when they were 7-2 and wound up in third place.
In the previous five years before the COVID-shortened season, LSU had finished no higher than sixth.
“It’s exciting,” Sell said. “It’s something we wanted to do was create a consistent national powerhouse and contend with the best consistently. LSU has that standard of excellence and that’s exciting to finish and be in position to be seeded in the top four and be in the upper echelon of our conference. Most years the SEC (seven teams in Top 25) is just so deep. There’s no real drop off. Everybody’s good.”
Sell said the March 27 setback at Texas A&M – a 4-0 defeat – served as a catalyst in LSU’s strong finish, giving the team plenty of incentive to win out in order to achieve their season-long objectives.
“That left a sour taste in our mouths after A&M knowing that we could have played at a higher level there,” he said. “We knew that our goals of finishing in the top four were still in front of us and knowing that we had to win all four to achieve that, put the girls in an extra gear. They’ve always believed in each other and for them to come out so dominant like they did was awesome.”
Corley is the highest ranked singles player for LSU with a No. 51 ranking followed by Bridges at No. 55 and Carrington at No. 105.
Corley has the best overall record at 17-4, including 6-2 in SEC play, alternating between the Nos. 3-4-5 spots in the lineup, while Bridges is 13-10 overall from the No. 1 singles spot and Carrington 10-9 at No. 2.
Geissler is 15-6 (6-2 in SEC play) at Nos. 5-6 singles with Buyckx 11-6 (5-1 in SEC) at No. 6, giving the Tigers plenty of depth in the lower half of their lineup where they’re 28-8 at the Nos. 4-5-6 positions.
“We feel when we go out, we’re really good one through six and at any given point we can win one through six,” Sell said. “It’s an extra tribute to those players at 3-4-5-6. They may not get the highlights of playing on the top two courts, but they’re more important for this team. It shows that championships are won down below, and it carries over to doubles. The depth of our team is our biggest asset.”
The tandem of Bridges-Corley is LSU’s lone ranked doubles team at No. 84. They’ve led the way from the Nos. 2-3 position in the lineup with a 15-3 overall record, including 8-3 in SEC, where Carrington-Cubitt are 7-5 overall at No. 2 and Geissler-Eden Richardson are 4-10 at the No. 1 spot. Anna Loughlan and Eden Richardson have also gone 4-2 between at the Nos. 2-3 doubles.
“We have lofty goals and we’re going to aim high and go after it,” Sell said. “We’re taking it day by day, but we’re not going to the SEC tournament just to participate. We have one goal in mind. Our goal is to win.”