By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
Baylor women’s tennis may have had to wait until one of the last regions was announced, but it finally heard its name called as an at-large bid in Monday’s NCAA selection show.
Sophomore Brooke Thompson said “it was a little nerve-wracking” to wait on the edge of her seat for the Bears to ensure a 24th NCAA Tournament appearance, especially when their season wasn’t strong enough to be a lock.
“We were all kind of just sitting close to each other,” Thompson said. “I was grabbing Dani [freshman Daniella Dimitrov], who was next to me, every time [a name was called]. … Now that we’re in, it’s a good feeling.”
Baylor (16-13) will head to Bryan-College Station to face a familiar foe in Southern Methodist University at 10 a.m. Friday. The Bears took down the Mustangs (16-8) by a score of 4-1 on Senior Night on April 10 at the Hurd Tennis Center.
No. 2 seed Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University, the regional host team, will face Quinnipiac University on Friday as well. The winner of that contest will compete against the winner of Baylor and SMU in the regional final Saturday.
Head coach Joey Scrivano said the team knew how important it was to beat the Mustangs on April 10 in Waco. Scrivano told his squad it was like a “play-in” game to make the NCAA Tournament, and they responded with the win.
That late non-conference contest shaped up to be a play-in and a postseason preview for the Bears, as now they clash with SMU once again, this time in the opening round Friday. Scrivano said beating at team twice in a season presents a tough task for his group.
“There is a psychological component to it where you have to get yourself up to [win] again,” Scrivano said. “But that’s what great teams and great players do and that’s a part of the process for our team is to learn how to do that. It’s a reset. You have to learn from that last match — whether you won or lost — and be ready to play this one.”
Fifth-year senior Paula Barañano fittingly lifted Baylor to its Senior Night win over SMU, as she secured the match-clinching win in her singles match. Barañano said the selection show was exciting for her since it’s her last year at the collegiate level.
“I was really happy because these past two weeks we didn’t know if we were going to get in,” Barañano said. “Seeing the Baylor name out there, I was happy for me, for the team. It’s just [nice to] compete for Baylor one more time.”
Barañano has the second-most singles wins on the team with 17, and she’s 4-6 against her last 10 opponents. She’s had to lead a group that mostly competes with freshmen or sophomore athletes, as only senior Isabella Harvison joins her as an upperclassman.
Part of the reason that Scrivano’s squad is so young is due to what he lost following the 2021-22 season. Mel Krywoj and Alicia Herrero Linana were at one point the No. 1 doubles pairing in the nation last season. Both of them exhausted their eligibility, and Scrivano was forced to replace two players at the top of the lineup.
Barañano and Harvison were placed in top roles, thus sparking a domino effect down the line to the younger team members. Harvison leads the team with 19 wins in singles play, and only her and Barañano have more than 13.
Scrivano said there aren’t many programs in the country that could’ve rebuilt the way Baylor did in order to make the NCAA Tournament. He said it’s no easy feat replacing two ITA All-Americans like Krywoj and Herrero Linana.
“We’re really, really proud of the team,” Scrivano said. “We probably played one of the toughest schedules in the country. [I’m] just proud of the resilience of our team and how they just kept getting better as the season progressed. That’s all you can ask for as a coach, just with the team you have, can we move them closer to their potential in that amount of time that you have? And I feel like that this team has done that.”
Outside of Harvison and Barañano, Scrivano typically plays Thompson (sophomore), sophomores Anita Sahdiieva and Alina Shcherbinina and freshman Daniella Dimitrov. Others that find themselves in and out of the lineup include more underclassman like sophomore Liubov Kostenko or freshman Danielle Tuhten.
With such immense youth, Scrivano said he expects nerves when the team steps on the court in Bryan-College Station Friday, but that “without the nerves, we’re not standing here” talking about a postseason berth.
“You need the nerves,” Scrivano said. “The key is to turn the nerves into positive excitement. I love that part of it. I love it for the athletes. That’s how you build confidence in young people. They have to deal with the doubt and the fear and the anxiety and then you help them show them that they can overcome it.”
All matches on Friday and Saturday will be played at the Mitchell Tennis Center. Baylor enters the postseason with a 38-19 all-time record and has made it this far for the 17th time under Scrivano, who’s in his 21st year in Waco. Monday’s selection also marked the third-straight one for the Bears’ program after missing the tournament in 2019.
Last season, Baylor downed the University of Washington, 4-2, in the first round before falling to regional-host Texas A&M, 4-1.