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The Buckeyes women’s tennis team, under the direction of head coach Chuck Merzbacher, keeps setting the bar higher each passing season. Merzbacher, now in his 14th season as the head coach of the Scarlet and Gray, has assembled one of the Big Ten’s most capable squads once again this season.

The team is looking to build on its success from last season, which included a second-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten. The fourth-place conference finish was the highest for the team since finishing second in the 2004 season.

The squad carries a faint resemblance from last year’s group. With three letterwinners gone, the team will rely heavily on a strong upperclassmen group. Seniors Kirsten Flower and Christina Keesey look to continue their collegiate success in their final season as Buckeyes. 

Juniors Cami Hubbs and Paloma Escobedo have both also enjoyed considerable success. The superb duo now enter the second half of their collegiate careers well capable of leaving their mark in the Ohio State record books. Sophomore Kelsey Haviland looks to carry last year’s team-leading win percentage into the new year.

Joining the Buckeyes this season are three freshmen: Kara Cecil, Fidan Manashirova and Gabby Steele. Cecil comes to Ohio State after a stellar prep career that led to a top ranking in her home state of Florida. Manashirova was a premier California prep player and a graduate of the acclaimed Gorin Tennis Academy. Steele, hailing from Cincinnati, joins the Buckeye family after a high school career that included numerous awards and a state championship in singles. All three were highly touted five-star recruits.

The Lineup
Although the team had to replace three letterwinners from the previous season, the 2009-10 Buckeye squad is filled with talent from top to bottom. Ohio State contains not only talent, with an astonishing total of seven former five-star or blue chip recruits, but also experience, having five players with NCAA tournament experience.

Perhaps the most seasoned veteran on the team, Kirsten Flower has seen postseason play all three seasons of her collegiate career. The first two NCAA appearances came with Georgia Tech, including a national title in 2007, but last year Flower acted as a catalyst for the Buckeyes on the way to their second-consecutive NCAA tournament berth. She proved a valuable addition to the Scarlet and Gray, playing singles matches from the top spot and earning a team-leading 19 wins in the process, including four wins over nationally ranked opponents. Her outstanding play was recognized at the season’s end, being named to the All-Big Ten team, the first Buckeye to do so since 2003, and honored as the team’s co-MVP with Christina Keesey. Flower enters the season ranked No. 53 nationally in the Campbell/ITA College Tennis Rankings.

Fellow senior and co-MVP Christina Keesey is looking to cap off her superb career as a Buckeye. At 68 career singles wins, she is set to shoot up the Ohio State career singles wins chart, currently tied for ninth after a solid fall season. She has been a dual threat, also currently at No. 15 on the OSU career doubles record with 63 wins heading into the spring. Last season, Keesey continued her tradition of versatility, now having played at every spot except No. 1 in her three years. Keesey was a force in the springtime for Ohio State, winning a combined 29 matches in singles and doubles and posting a 15-5 combined mark in Big Ten play. Keesey and former Buckeye Angela DiPastina finished the season ranked as the No. 77 doubles tandem in the nation.

Junior Cami Hubbs came into her sophomore season with the impossible task of topping her record-breaking freshman year. She responded with a tie for the team-high in doubles wins at 22 and a consistent movement up the singles lineup, eventually topping out at the No. 2 spot in the spring. Hubbs is on pace to reach the top of the singles and doubles records, with 50 and 48 wins in each category, respectively.

Classmate Paloma Escobedo finished her sophomore campaign with a 19-11 double record, including a nearly perfect 8-1 ledger in Big Ten play. For the second consecutive season, Escobedo found herself in the midst of an impressive streak, winning 10-of-11 doubles matches with Kirsten Flower from Feb. 28-April 12. Escobedo compiled a 13-11 record in singles as well, with all of her dual matches at the No. 2 spot. Her efforts resulted in being awarded the team’s Most Improved accolade.

Sophomore Kelsey Haviland is looking to pick up where she left off last spring, when she won her last five singles matches. She was impressive in both halves of the season, leading the team in singles victories in the fall, including an undefeated showing at the Hoosier Classic, and finishing with a team-high winning percentage at .700 following the spring slate. 

Kara Cecil returns to her birth-state to compete for the Buckeyes after playing out her prep career in Florida. The multi-sport graduate of Durant High School in Plant City, Fla., made her mark in USTA competitions, including leading her USTA Intersectional team to an undefeated record her junior year. Cecil was also a finalist at the FSHAA State Championships in 2006.

Fellow five-star recruit Fidan Manashirova, hailing from Elk Grove, Calif., joins the Scarlet and Gray after a distinguished junior career that saw her defeat eight blue-chip prospects. Her big-game abilities, honed at the Gorin Tennis Academy in Northern California, should help her transition well to the college game.  The highest ranked of the three freshmen, Manashirova is especially impressive in doubles play, reaching the finals of multiple International Tennis Federation events during her prep career.

Gabby Steele is the third of the five-star freshmen joining the team this season. The Ohioan, coming to Ohio State from Cincinnati, has a laundry list of high school accomplishments. Not only did the three-time first team all-state player lead her team to a runner-up finish in the Division II State tournament her sophomore year, but she was an individual runner-up in singles her freshman and senior years. As a junior, Steele knocked off current teammate Kelsey Haviland for the state singles championship.

Support in Numbers
Along with increased success in recent seasons, the team has enjoyed a new height of interest among Buckeye Nation. Ohio State was one of the top schools in attendance numbers last season, finishing sixth in total attendance for the year. The Scarlet and Gray finished behind fellow conference members Northwestern and Michigan. The Big Ten boasts a total of four schools in the top 10 of total attendance, more than any other conference.

A Look Back at the Fall
The Buckeyes enjoyed a solid fall season, claiming impressive wins over quality opponents from around the country. The team kicked off its fall slate with three players earning a trip to the prestigious Riviera/ITA All-American Championships. Senior Kirsten Flower notched a win over ranked opponent Martina Pavelec of Wake Forest while junior Paloma Escobedo also defeated Texas Tech’s Kelsy Garland.

Next up for the team was a trip to the Kentucky Invitational. Freshman phenom Fidan Manashirova began her Ohio State career with a singles flight title in the event after going a perfect 4-0. Fellow classmate Gabby Steele advanced to the final match before falling in the third set of the final match, but finished 3-1 for the event. The two freshmen, along with the duo of Cami Hubbs and Kelsey Haviland, finished 3-1 in doubles.

At the ITA Midwest Regional Championships, seven Buckeyes saw action in the singles main draw after Haviland, Manashirova and Steele won their way out of the qualifying rounds. The trio then joined the upperclassmen group of Flower, Keesey, Hubbs and Escobedo in the main draw. Flower earned two wins in advancing to the quarterfinals. The doubles tandem of Hubbs and Haviland also posted two wins and reached the doubles quarterfinals.

The final autumn event was the Thunderbird Invitational, where senior Christina Keesey found her groove on the way to a 3-1 singles ledger. Freshman Kara Cecil picked up her first collegiate singles win in the event and also played well in doubles, pairing up with a player from Arizona State to go 1-1.

Fidan Manashirova finished the fall as the team’s leader in singles wins with seven, while Cami Hubbs and Kelsey Haviland each had five doubles wins.