Vixen tennis boasts two ITA-ranked players

The Sweet Briar tennis Vixens will head into the spring team season with two ranked players on its roster, first-year Ariel Holness of Springfield and sophomore Moriah Burke of Rockville, Md.

Holness is the No. 20 singles player in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s recently released Division III rankings in the Atlantic South. Holness and Burke combined to claim the 10th spot in the doubles ranking, where they tied with a team from Methodist University.

Head tennis coach Teresa Boylan isn’t surprised by the recognition. “Ariel had some really terrific results for a first-year player this fall — individual wins at Methodist, ITA regional, then at ODAC individuals,” she said.

Both performed well at the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Fall Championship individuals tournament, where Holness defeated the No. 1 seed from Washington and Lee’s nationally ranked team. On the neighboring court, Burke outlasted another top W&L player in a tough match that ended in a tie-breaker.

Holness said she wasn’t expecting the singles ranking so early in her college career, but neither player seemed stunned by the doubles ranking. “We beat players from ranked teams,” said Burke, who was strength training with lacrosse coach Hillary London when Boylan brought her the news on Wednesday.

Her celebration lasted about 30 seconds. “Hillary told me to keep working out and stay focused,” she said, though she knew the coach was joking.

Both Holness and Burke attribute some of their doubles success to their shared experiences on and off the court. Each spent their senior year at the Bullis School in Maryland and each played in U.S. Tennis Association junior competition, where Burke alluded to the need for toughness. “You go through your ups and you go through your downs,” she said.

But they also grew close when Holness moved from Florida to Northern Virginia and became friends with Burke’s younger sister. They developed a bond that Holness says helps them communicate during matches. And they challenge one another, Burke said.

Burke and Holness are the kind of players who make their teammates better, Boylan said. She credits Burke for helping the team post a 14-7 record last spring. The Vixens also were 7-3 in the conference. After not qualifying for the ODAC championships the previous year, they entered the 2010 tournament as the third seed and finished fourth.

“Tennis players are notorious for wanting to ‘play up,’ ” Boylan said, and when Burke arrived in the fall of 2009, she raised the level of practice for everyone. “Last year when we started winning, it was really a team effort.”

It helped, too that the College completed the Fitness and Athletics Center with its indoor practice courts just in time for the coldest, snowiest winter in decades. “To have that facility is huge,” Boylan said. “We used it through all of February. Without it, we wouldn’t have had that extra month of practice.”

Since then, Holness’ arrival has buoyed the team effort even further, said Boylan, noting that she’s inspirational both on and off the court. Soft-spoken but intense, she has a light-up-the-room smile and plenty of perspective when it comes to accolades. “Ariel’s funny,” she said. “She’s unaffected by it. She said, ‘Yeah, that’s good — gotta go study.’ ”

The players and coach all agreed that success has a tendency to build on itself. Burke noted that her teammates are working out and playing more because they believe in the program and like where it’s going. While Burke and Holness said they chose Sweet Briar for its academics and supportive community (Holness calls playing tennis a “bonus”), contributing at the beginning of a building process for the tennis program was part of the attraction.

They realize that last year’s record and their individual performances this fall have put opponents on notice. “People are saying that Sweet Briar is one of the teams to look out for,” Holness said.

Burke knows that means the competition will get harder and that’s good. “When you have no competition, you have no fun,” she said, adding about her teammates, “Instead of getting scared, we’re fighting back.”

For Boylan, the team’s progress also leads to stronger non-conference opponents. Once the conference games are set, coaches work with each other to fill out the rest of the schedule and the goal is to make it as challenging as possible.

“We’re finally in the company we want to be in,” she said. “We just have to keep winning. We have to prove that it’s not a fluke. I know the quality of my players. They like a fight.”

The more they win, the more talented players will want to attend Sweet Briar, where there’s room on the roster. But it’s not just about sports, says Boylan. “We’re all passionate about the sport, but you’re here to get an education. It’s a whole package at a school like Sweet Briar.”

The Vixens will need that depth to continue to challenge teams like W&L, which has a roster that is more horizontal than vertical in terms of player rankings. “That’s where your team wins happen,” Boylan said. “That’s the next step for us. There are kids out there. We just need to get them to notice us.”