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The Daily Tar Heel

Spring Sports - Tar Heels Aim for Another NCAA Berth

But the North Carolina women's tennis team has performed well on the less hallowed collegiate courts in its opening matches of the season.

The Tar Heels, ranked No. 22 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, boast a 6-1 record that includes victories against No. 34 Kentucky, No. 27 Illinois and No. 20 Northwestern.

No. 11 Notre Dame handed the Tar Heels their lone loss Feb. 11 in South Bend, Ind.

North Carolina returns seven letterwinners from the 10-14 2000 squad, which produced an NCAA Regional berth.

North Carolina's singles lineup features sophomore Marlene Mejia at the No. 1 seed. Mejia, a 2000 All-ACC performer, ranks 13th nationally and has compiled a 22-6 record.

Sophomore Kate Pinchbeck (18-4) has taken over the No. 2 seed since freshman Julie Rotondi went down with an ankle injury in the win against Kentucky.

"Kate is doing a marvelous job stepping up in Julie's absence," UNC coach Roland Thornqvist said. "She is playing the best she has ever played in her short career here."

UNC expects Rotondi (18-8) back in two to three weeks.

The remaining seeds are still up for grabs with sophomore Kendrick Bunn (7-7), freshman Elina Bairos (11-8) and juniors Caroline Hill (15-4) and Kristin Koenig (16-5) vying for the spots.

On the doubles side, the 25th-ranked duo of Pinchbeck and Bunn lead the North Carolina attack.

Mejia, who normally plays with Rotondi, is currently paired with Bairos. Senior co-captain Erin Niebling is also contributing in doubles.

"(Erin) helps out a ton in doubles and is one of the reasons we have been so tough in doubles so far," Thornqvist said.

Fellow senior captain Courtney Zalinski could also see action in doubles and, along with Niebling, has provided UNC with leadership.

"Courtney and Erin -- they have been tremendous," Thornqvist said. "They set the tone and do a good job making sure that practice is run the way it is supposed to."

Although tennis is largely a game of individuals, the Tar Heels have not lost sight of the team concept, and this team chemistry has contributed to their early success.

"In your singles match you are not just playing for yourself," Pinchbeck said.

"We get along so well, and team chemistry helps for us to improve and play better tennis."

North Carolina has its sights set on the ACC crown but will face some stiff conference competition along the way.

Duke and Wake Forest are ranked third and 14th in the nation, respectively.

Although the Blue Devils appear to be the favorites entering the season, Thornqvist believes his squad can challenge them for the ACC title.

"We play them at home, and so we hope with a good crowd that we can give them a run for their money," Thornqvist said.

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The Tar Heels also hope to return to the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season.

Said Pinchbeck, "I think everyone is really excited about the possibilities for this year."