First-year Alle Sanford is the ninth-ranked player in the country. She took over Carter’s top spot on the roster, and she’s already proved that she can hang with the country’s top competitors.
In September, Sanford won her first national tournament when she defeated reigning champion Ena Shibahara of UCLA. In November, she made it to the quarterfinals of the Oracle ITA National Fall Championship.
This weekend, Sanford recorded two doubles wins to help her team sweep both Winthrop and Illinois, sending the Tar Heels to the ITA Indoor National Championships in February.
The Tar Heels also see the return of redshirt junior Marika Akkerman, who missed the entire 2016-17 season due to injury. Akkerman and sophomore Makenna Jones were a huge asset to the team in doubles competition this weekend, defeating their competition from Winthrop, 6-0, on Friday and Illinois, 6-4, on Saturday.
“Marika’s really been a blessing for our team,” head coach Brian Kalbas said. “Being out for a whole year and not really playing, she realized how much she missed the love of the game and competing. She adds so much toughness to our team.”
Junior Jessie Aney is also a powerhouse on the tennis court. Ranked No. 18 in the nation, the poise, strength and confidence the three-year starter displays on the court is impressive. Yet, she’s playing at the fourth spot on the team.
“Coach said, ‘Do you care where you play?’ and I was just like, 'Coach, I’m winning wherever you put me,'” Aney said. “I’m excited to play four. I love playing next to whoever I’m next to.”
The depth of North Carolina has allowed the team to have extreme success so far this season. The Tar Heels are now 6-0 and have dominated every team they’ve played. Aney attributes this success to a “different kind of vibe” this season.
“I think everybody wants it to come down to them,” Aney said. “I don’t think anybody’s looking around expecting anyone to do it for them. Everybody just wants to be out there competing.”
Kalbas said that vibe is a good thing. It’s proved successful so far, and the way the team’s been playing, that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
“In the past, they knew Hayley was going to win a lot of her matches, if not all of her matches, and sometimes they kind of took that for granted,” Kalbas said of his players. “This year, every player wants to be that person. Everybody’s hungry to get better.”
The Tar Heels look to continue using that hunger as fuel when preparing for the ITA Indoor National Championships.
North Carolina has come in second place in the tournament the past two years, but this is a different, deeper team with a new identity.
And they might have what it takes to win it all.
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