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Duke women's tennis looks to shake off rust facing Virginia Commonwealth in NCAA tournament opener

<p>Junior Chalena Scholl will once again play in the top singles spot for the Blue Devils with senior Beatrice Capra still out due to injury.&nbsp;</p>

Junior Chalena Scholl will once again play in the top singles spot for the Blue Devils with senior Beatrice Capra still out due to injury. 

A year ago, the Blue Devils rebounded from an early ACC tournament exit with a dominant first-round victory, but failed to advance to the Sweet 16 with a 4-0 loss to host Georgia.

Duke will look to turn the tables in the same situation this time around with the added benefit of playing at home.

The ninth-seeded Blue Devils will kick off the NCAA tournament Friday at 1 p.m. against Virginia Commonwealth at Ambler Tennis Stadium. Duke will return from an extended break after bowing out in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament with a 4-2 loss against Virginia April 23 in a match that featured a long weather delay.

“Three weeks is a long time for us but everyone is refreshed and excited to play,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “We’ve done a good job during the three weeks preparing and trying to put ourselves in kind of pressure situations as much as we possibly can. Everyone’s cleared their exams and this is what their only focus needs to be.”

Weather could once again be a factor this weekend as thunderstorms could hit Durham. But the Blue Devils (18-6) will look to control what they can—their performance on the courts.

With Carolina Region Senior Player of the Year Beatrice Capra to miss her fifth consecutive match due to injury, Duke will turn to Chalena Scholl for a boost in the top singles spot. Although the junior was defeated in straight sets against the Cavaliers, Scholl has a 6-2 record in the No. 1 spot this season and will look to build on a career-high 21 singles victories after a full week of practice.

“We’ve been taking a lot of time to play a lot of points and get back in the match mindset,” Scholl said. “Every team is here for a reason and every team can beat us on a good day. We have to come out with energy and give it everything we have from the start.”

The Blue Devils will also need solid performances from three freshmen—Kaitlyn McCarthy, Jessica Ho and Elysse Hamlin—making their first NCAA Tournament appearances. McCarthy is the No. 55 ranked singles player in the country, but is coming off a 6-0, 6-2 defeat against Virginia. The freshman will also be counted on for the crucial doubles point and will likely team up with sophomore Samantha Harris—who has won 11 straight singles matches—again in the top spot for Duke.

Singles action on courts four, five and six may be a turning point in the match for the Blue Devils, especially against a very top-heavy Virginia Commonwealth squad. Both Hamlin and Ho enter Friday’s match with momentum, having won two and six straight matches, respectively. Redshirt freshman Christina Makarova will also look to start her first NCAA tournament on a positive note.

As the Blue Devils look to regain momentum Friday, the Rams enter the match with a full-head of steam. Virginia Commonwealth (12-9) is riding a season-high seven-match win streak that carried it to a fifth-straight Atlantic 10 conference championship after a slow start to the season.

“Every match for them was like an NCAA match—they had to win, it was a do or die match for them,” Ashworth said. “They’ve played their best when they have a lot of pressure on them and we have to make sure we get off to a good start. It’s a little bit worrisome with the three-week break and having to do that.”

The Rams feature one of the youngest teams in the nation with six freshmen, a sophomore and only one senior. All eight members of the team are international players and span three different continents.

Two of Virginia Commonwealth’s young stars are likely to test Duke. Anna Rasmussen enters the NCAA tournament on a seven-match winning streak and was a perfect 3-0 in the A-10 tournament, and fellow freshman and doubles partner Janina Braun also went unbeaten last weekend to extend her winning streak to nine matches.

Additionally, the Blue Devils will have to handle the more experienced doubles tandem of senior Olga Barshcheuskaya and sophomore Darya Berezhnaya, which posted a 12-3 mark overall this season at the top spot.

After being forced to play on the road for the first weekend of the tournament a year ago, Duke understands the opportunity ahead with the road to the Sweet 16 running through Ambler Tennis Stadium this time around.

“Taking care of what you need to in the first match and getting off the court as fast as you can is something we would definitely be looking to do against VCU,” Ashworth said.

With a win Friday, the Blue Devils will advance to face the winner of Texas and William & Mary Saturday at noon for the chance to move on to the Sweet 16 in Tulsa, Okla. Duke knocked off the Longhorns 4-3 Feb. 21 in Durham.

Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.