HUNTSVILLE – The Sam Houston State Bearkats will try to keep its resurgent 2017 going this weekend when they head to Beaumont for the Southland Conference Tournament, kicking things off on Friday morning against Lamar.
First-year head coach Rob Hubbard's crew finished 6-5 in Southland Conference play, its first winning season in league play since 2010, despite dealing with injuries to nearly half of its available roster – including its Nos. 1 and 2 players - in the second half of the season.
Two of those players – Fabienne Gettwart and Diane Friedrichs – will return to the lineup this weekend, making the seventh-seeded Kats a dangerous opponent for the host Lamar Cardinals in the opening round. First serve of the opening match is set for 10 a.m. on Friday with a win advancing the Kats to the semifinals where they would face off with either No. 3 Central Arkansas or No. 6 Northwestern State at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
“The girls had the goal of making the Southland Tournament, but they have both long-term, short-term and immediate goals,” Hubbard said. “They have a desire to win this tournament, and that is still on the table. It's always a great thing when you have a goal sheet and you are able to scratch one off and replace it with a new one. None of these girls have been to the SLC Tournament, so there is a lot of excitement among our group, myself included.”
The road to the finals is one that lends itself well to the Kats based on regular-season results. Sam Houston already owns road wins over both Lamar and Central Arkansas, and narrowly fell to the Demons in the second match of league play, 4-3, in a match that the Kats were not able to close out despite having multiple clinching-point opportunities in singles play.
“We know we are competitive, and that is the bottom line,” Hubbard said. “We knew after the first round of conference matches where we beat SFA and nearly got Northwestern State that we were in the hunt and would be competitive. We see that again going into this weekend. We are going in without our No. 2, but the girls have stepped up before and we know we can compete with what we have.
Hubbard's squad is making its first appearance in the tournament since the 2013 season. That season the Bearkats also opened up the tournament against Lamar, picking up a 4-3 win in the first round before falling 4-2 to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the semifinals.
They were one of the hottest teams in the league going into the final week of the season, winning four of five matches and clinching a tournament berth with a win over Nicholls before injuries to Gettwart and Ema Barkovic threw up a late-season road block. Still, the shorthanded Bearkats were able to close out the regular season with a win at Southeastern Louisiana in the season finale despite fielding only four players.
“It's amazing how well the girls handled the last three matches that we played shorthanded,” Hubbard said. “We played without our top two players the last two weeks, but I think that helped our team believe in itself. This is not the team from previous years, so I think the trials have made us stronger.”
The return of Gettwart is a key one for Sam Houston is a key one as she played 15 of her 18 matches on the year at the No. 1 spot and earned three Southland victories. That included a win over Lamar's Katya Lapayeva, the Southland Conference Player of the Year, in the Kats' win over the Cardinals earlier in the year, Lapayeva's only singles loss on the year.
Khee Yen Wee will enter the tournament having recently earned second team all-Southland honors, along with the doubles duo of Carrie Casey and Mila Milanovic. Wee earned her honors at the No. 3 spot in the lineup, and was on a stretch of winning eight of nine singles matches before the team's injury misfortune forced her to move up in the lineup for the final three matches of the year.
“We are excited to have both Fabienne and Diane back and to be close to full force going into the tournament,” Hubbard said. “Everyone has been relaxed in practice and things are going well. Now that we are going to be able to field six again, we have a lot of confidence. Doubles are going to be a pretty big factor and if we can secure that point then it would be huge.”
Fans can get updates throughout the tournament by following @BearkatsWTEN on Twitter.