The University of Miami women’s tennis team took a couple of hard hits in graduation this past season, most notably losing singles and doubles All-American Stephanie Wagner.
All she did was set the program’s career singles record with 134 victories.
In addition, Clementina Riobueno, who slumped as a senior with a 9-16 singles record but was still 77-49 for her career, also graduated.
Those were expected losses.
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The surprise came when sophomore Wendy Zhang transferred to Rice. She earned doubles All-American honors last season while teaming with Wagner.
Fortunately for coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, whose 12th-ranked Canes will start the 2017 season with the Miami Spring Invite on Jan. 20, she got a fateful phone call from Maci Epstein just one week after learning of Zhang’s departure.
Epstein, who helped lead Virginia to Atlantic Coast Conference championships in her sophomore and junior seasons — the only two years she was healthy for spring tennis with the Cavaliers — told Yaroshuk-Tews she was transferring and looking for a new school.
“It was a no-brainer,” said Yaroshuk-Tews, who quickly set up a recruiting visit. “I had always hated playing against Maci because she has the ability to blast winners, and she’s a great competitor with a lot personality.
“When you lose a kid like Maci [in recruiting], you hope she goes to a school far away. Instead, she stayed in the ACC with Virginia and beat us six or eight times, including singles and doubles. We only beat her once.”
Epstein, a 5-7 senior from the Orlando area who enters this season ranked a career-best 69th nationally, chose Virginia over her other finalist, Miami, out of high school.
This time, she chose UM for her final season of eligibility.
“I emailed some other schools,” said Epstein, a 23-year-old who is studying for her Masters degree in communication studies. “But in the back of my mind, I knew it was going to be Miami.”
Epstein had an up-and-down career at Virginia, where she mostly played No. 5 singles.
She sustained a broken ankle and missed her freshman season. Epstein then missed her senior season after she injured her back while hiking up Virginia’s Humpback Mountain in December 2015.
“It just busted,” Epstein said of her back, which did not need surgery. “It was the worst pain of my life.”
Epstein, who earned her Bachelor’s degree at Virginia with a double major in media studies and sociology, said her back is fine now, although she has to be diligent about stretching.
There’s a chance she could slot in at No. 2 singles behind Sinead Lohan, a junior who is already a two-time All-American.
Yaroshuk-Tews figures Lohan, Epstein and redshirt sophomore Yolimar Ogando will be her top three.
Epstein is a proven winner with a career ACC record of 19-6 in singles and 20-4 in doubles. Ogando has recovered from a knee injury after posting a 14-1 singles record in the fall of 2015.
And challenges will come from several talented returners like junior Silvia Fuentes, and sophomores Ana Madcur and Clara Tanielian.
UM’s freshman class of Dominika Paterova (Czech Republic), Estela Perez-Somarriba (Spain) and Sara Culbertson (Coral Gables) is ranked 13th in the nation by TennisRecruiting.net.
Overall, the Hurricanes have a deep roster — nine quality players competing for six singles spots — and Epstein has been impressed by the entire atmosphere.
“At Virginia, [the coaches] used negativity to fuel us,” Epstein said. “I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it, and it’s such a difference with the positivity at Miami.”