Playing with a new head coach and in a new conference, Notre Dame has not shown any signs of growing pains, having posted five wins against top-20 opponents and starting 3-1 in ACC play.
So, despite having won its last four matchups against the ninth-ranked Fighting Irish, No. 14 Duke will face a difficult test in South Bend, Ind. when the two squads square off at 3:30 p.m. Friday. The Blue Devils will then travel to Dedham, Mass. for a match with Boston College at 3 p.m. Sunday as part of a 2,300-mile road trip.
“This is the best Notre Dame’s been since I’ve been a part of college tennis,” head coach Ramsey Smith said of Duke’s first weekend opponent. “Typically they’re in the 25 to 35 range [in national rankings], and now that they’re in conference and they’re a top 10 team this late in the season”
Although Notre Dame is new to the ACC, the Fighting Irish (13-5, 3-1 in the ACC) and Blue Devils (10-5, 2-1) have squared off in each of the last 20 years, with Duke leading the series 13-7 in that stretch.
Nevertheless, Friday’s contest marks the latest in the season the two squads have met since the 2000 season, and Notre Dame has put together an impressive body of work so far this season—including two wins against Kentucky, which was ranked in the top-15 for both matches against the Fighting Irish. The Blue Devils fell narrowly 4-3 to the then-No. 9 Wildcats when they played Jan. 19.
“I think the team’s a lot tougher than it’s been in the past,” Smith said. “I feel like the last couple of years, at times, they’ve kind of rolled over and in spots, they haven’t been as tough, but I think this year, they’re really tough. They’re winning a bunch of close matches, and [head coach Ryan Sachire has] got them fighting really well.”
Sachire, a Notre Dame alumnus who served on the team’s coaching staff for seven years prior to taking the head coaching position last July, shares a similar path with Smith, who played for Duke from 1998-2001.
The two friends have previously matched up as players on the ATP circuit with Sachire owning a 2-1 record against Smith and Smith having won the last match they played.
When they square off from the sidelines, Sachire will look to senior Greg Andrews as his top weapon. The No. 29 singles player in the nation is a two-time Big East player of the year but has only gone 2-2 in conference play so far.
Still, Smith noted that the 5-foot-11, 165-pounder packs a powerful punch.
“He has a huge forehand—definitely one of the best forehands in college tennis,” he said. “Really quick, tough competitor, but he’s got a huge forehand.”
Leading a lineup that often features two freshmen—Josh Hagar and Eddy Covalschi—Andrews also plays a major leadership role.
“Greg’s been doing a heck of a job for us—he’s a senior, he’s been through the wars, he’s been a nationally ranked, nationally elite player now for the better part of three years,” Sachire said. “He’s comfortable being in the environment he’s going to be in Friday.”
For the Blue Devils, Friday’s match presents a second-straight match against a top-10 opponent after Duke fell to then-No. 7 Virginia Sunday. The Blue Devils played without sophomore Michael Redlicki who was suspended indefinitely for disorderly conduct.
Redlicki has won six of nine matches at the No. 1 singles position this year, while senior Fred Saba and junior Jason Tahir have combined to go 1-4 at the position. The two upperclassmen have compiled a combined 19-4 record at the No. 2 and No. 3 singles positions however.
Following Friday’s match, Duke will then have to fly nearly 900 miles for its second conference matchup of the weekend.
Boston College (10-6, 2-4) dropped its first three conference games but defeated Clemson 7-0 Sunday and has lost just one match at home this year.
And the traveling does not stop there. After two and a half days back in Durham, Duke makes its Florida trip, flying to Miami Friday.
“We’re getting the frequent flyer miles this year,” Smith said.