One of the consistently best athletic programs on the University of Miami campus quietly goes about its business in the shadow of the national spotlight cast on teams such as men’s basketball and football — its accomplished coach so driven that players have transferred to escape the intensity.
“At least one a year usually transfers because they can’t handle me or I can’t handle them,” said women’s tennis coach Paige Yaroshuk-Tews, already a member of the UM Sports Hall of Fame.
After last year it was feisty Israeli Liat Zimmerman, who left to play at Rice, despite telling her coach she liked her.
“Paige is harder than the army,” Zimmerman said last season. “Maybe I should have gone to the army.”
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As the sixth-ranked Hurricanes prepare to open the Round of 16 against No. 11 Northwestern on Friday at the NCAA tennis championships in Urbana, Ill., it’s almost astonishing to learn that the Canes are off to their eighth consecutive Sweet 16 without a player ranked higher than 60th.
Also amazing, according to Yaroshuk-Tews: Every player will return next season.
“I’ve never coached a team that hasn’t had a superstar at No. 1,” she said. “If we looked back statistically to the amount of matches we won prior to this season, 85 to 90 percent of the time our No.1 player would pull in a point.
“Now, the points come from every position.”
The carousel of past UM stars includes Bianca Eichkorn, ranked sixth in 2011; NCAA 2009 singles finalist Laura Vallverdu, now the Hurricanes’ volunteer assistant coach; 2007 national champion Audra Cohen; and top-ranked Megan Bradley in 2005.
But this team, whose No. 1 player, freshman Stephanie Wagner of Amberg, Germany, is a star in the making, has something more important than a No. 1 phenom. It has players at all six singles spots who can earn a point against any competition.
In college tennis, the first team to four points wins the match. Each singles victory is worth one point, and the team that wins two out of three doubles matches also earns a point.
UM’s depth has served it well this season, as the Canes (22-5) won the Atlantic Coast Conference title for the first time, defeating then-No. 2 North Carolina in the process.
Besides freshman Wagner, named the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s Southeast Region Rookie of the Year, there’s freshman Kelsey Laurente of Miramar at the No. 2 spot, sophomore Lina Lileikite at No. 3, freshman Clementina Riobueno at No. 4, sophomore Monique Albuquerque at No. 5 and junior Melissa Bolivar at No. 6.
Brittany Dubins of North Miami Beach, a junior, teams with Wagner to form the No. 3 doubles team, while freshman Deborah Suarez rounds out the squad.
Yaroshuk-Tews this week was named the Southeast Region Coach of the Year, and assistant Alex Santos the Southeast Region Assistant Coach of the Year. Both are up for national honors.
“This is an amazing team,” Dubins said. “Everyone is just really positive, and we’re like a family.”
Added Laurente: “We’re so blessed that we all get along.”
Wagner, who Yaroshuk-Tews said would have been ranked much higher had she not been sidelined by mononucleosis and other ailments in the fall, is described by her coach as “stubborn as a rock — a boulder.”
“Unbelievably sweet girl, but she doesn’t want to lose at arguments and she sure as heck doesn’t want to lose a match,” she said.
Yaroshuk-Tews said Laurente has “an edge. On the court she is an unbelievable competitor, one of the best that has ever played at this school. She fights from beginning to end.”
The coach described Lileikite as “stoic — tough to read,” Riobueno as “our little magician who has every shot in the book,” Albuquerque as “so nice that we’re trying to get her a little meaner on the court,” Bolivar as “crafty, athletic and mature,” and Dubins as “the mother hen who always sees the positive in every situation.
“This is the closest group I’ve ever had.”
Miami was the national runner-up in 2006 but has never won the title.
The Canes were eliminated by now top-ranked Florida in the quarterfinals of last year’s NCAA tournament and lost 4-2 to Northwestern (20-8) at national indoors in February.
Friday’s winner will advance to Sunday’s quarterfinal against the winner of No.3 Texas A&M vs. 14th-seeded Virginia.
“At this point everybody is good,” Vallverdu said. “To win it all will require us to stay intelligent in how we respond to everything that happens.”