Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, a dozen years into her tenure as the winningest women’s tennis coach in Miami Hurricanes history, said this season’s freshman class is the program’s best ever.
That’s saying something because the Canes have reached the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight in six of the past seven years and have been ranked among the nation’s top 20 every week since 2004.
The Canes (6-2), with four freshmen among their eight players, are currently ranked 12th in the nation and have already been tested by four schools that were in the top 25 at the time they played, including No. 2 UCLA. The Canes split with those four teams and gave the Bruins a challenge before falling, 4-2.
Here’s a closer look at the Canes’ fresh four:
Kelsey Laurente is ranked No. 52 in the country, the highest ranking of all Canes players. Laurente, a Miramar native who earned her high school online so she could travel to play in tennis tournaments, is also the shortest UM player at 5-3.
“Kelsey is the fastest kid I’ve ever coached,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She could play for hours. She’s smart and crafty yet powerful.”
Laurente said her ranking is an honor.
“But that’s not where my mind is at,” she said. “I just want to remain humble. I love to be on the court. If I could stay on the court all day, I would.”
Clementina Riobueno, a native of Venezuela, is ranked No. 104 nationally and that could rise because she is 8-0 so far this season.
“She grew up playing on clay courts and has incredible hands,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She has a big serve, a huge forehand, and she can finish at the net.”
The coach said Riobueno also has the biggest personality among the freshmen.
“Every time I look over, the kid is dancing and joking,” the coach said. “She’s a ball of fire.”
Added Riobueno: “I’m like that – happy.”
Stephanie Wagner is ranked No. 42 in the nation as a doubles player, combining with UM sophomore Lina Lileikite. Wagner is from Germany, and there is a pretty decent precedent for a tennis player named Steffi coming out of that country (Graf).
“Wagner probably hits the ball harder on a consistent basis than any kid I’ve ever coached,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She’s a tough cookie. She hates to lose at anything, whether it’s an argument or a tennis match.”
The Canes previously had great success with a recruit from Germany = former All-American Bianca Eichkorn, who in 2011 set the UM career record with 133 singles wins.
Now they have Wagner and her power game. “My game is to make the opponent run,” Wagner said.
Deborah Suarez, who is from Weston, also did her high school courses online. Her mother was a top juniors player in Venezuela, and her aunt was No. 1 in the nation among 18-under.
Suarez, meanwhile, is off to an 8-1 start at Miami.
In addition to the four freshmen, the Canes have another first-year college player in Monique Albuquerque. The sophomore from Brazil may be the best player on the team even though she has yet to win a college match.
Albuquerque arrived on campus in the fall of 2011 but had to sit out last season and part of this year due to NCAA eligibility issues. She has practiced for the past year but hasn’t competed in many tournaments in the past 18 months, and the rust has showed.
Yaroshuk-Tews said she could have started Albuquerque toward the bottom of the lineup and eased her entry into college tennis. But she opted against that plan and used her at No. 1 singles, where she went 0-3 in her first college tournament.
“I have a lot of faith in Monique,” the coach said. “For us to get to where we want to go (in the playoffs), Monique has to be introduced to those (top players at No. 1 singles). I think she belongs at No. 1.”
The coach said Albuquerque may be the “sweetest kid” she’s had in the program and would like to see her get tougher on the court.
In Miami’s most recent match, a 4-2 loss to No. 14 Northwestern, the Canes used, in order from No. 1 singles to No. 6: Albuquerque, Lileikite, Laurente, Wagner, Riobueno and Suarez.
That’s four freshmen and two sophomores in the top six. Junior Melissa Bolivar, who is from Colombia, played doubles.
Junior Brittany Dubins, who is from Miami Krop, is 3-0 and playing the best tennis of her life, according to her coach. But Dubins has to battle for playing time on a suddenly deep roster.
Last year, the Canes had no depth – just the minimum six players needed to field a team.
“I spent a lot of restless nights worrying if one of my kids would sprain an ankle,” Yaroshuk-Tews said. “This year, I spend restless nights because I have to tell two kids who have been busting their butts in practice that they won’t be playing this match.”
From a team standpoint, it’s a good problem to have. Even better for Canes fans is the reality that this team will be together through the 2014 season. That gives this group two tries at winning a national title.
“We’ve talked about not just peaking this May,” the coach said, “but even more so next May.”