The East Carolina women’s tennis players know that much of the Pirate Nation pays scant attention to what they are doing on the court, but if there was ever a time to rectify that situation, it’s now.
ECU’s team has won 17 straight matches — the longest winning streak for any Pirates squad since the 2004 baseball team notched 19 victories in a row.
After opening the 2019 portion of the season by falling to N.C. State and North Carolina, ECU hasn’t come out on the losing end since early February, heading into Saturday’s home match against Davidson with an overall record of 17-2 and a 3-0 mark in conference play.
“The team deserves it, because they have worked hard, and they take it very personally,” said head coach Tom Morris. “They’re working on their days off and that kinds of stuff. They’ve really stepped up, and we’ve seen the results of that hard work.”
Helping set that winning tone, and leading ECU in building a new and more intense culture, is senior Celia Ruiz, who has rebounded from a fall ankle injury to win 12 straight matches. The team captain for the past two seasons, Ruiz has been named to the All-American Athletic Conference squad three times and earned the program’s first-ever national singles ranking of 52nd after a 15-3 singles record during her junior year.
Ruiz was forced to sit out of competition from October to January because of her injury, adding a level of difficulty to her senior year that has just spurred her to work harder since her return. Morris credits her work ethic with encouraging the younger players to attack practice and conditioning with a similar fervor as their captain.
The women’s team has also earned national and conference recognition in recent years for their community service and academic excellence (the Pirates had a higher collective GPA than any other tennis team in the American last year) and Morris said that Ruiz has been a model off in those off-court areas as well.
“The work ethic changed a lot on the team, so now there are people who are willing to work harder to make the team better, which is contagious as well, so now I’m not the only one that is working hard for it,” said Ruiz, who came to ECU from Pontevedra, Spain. “It’s not just on the court, it has to do with the off-court relationships that we have, and I feel like this year we’ve grown really strong off the court. Friendship-wise, we are like one.”
Even though 17 straight victories are impressive, Ruiz said that the players aren’t fixated on the need to keep the streak alive. Instead, they are just focused on keeping the right attitude, working hard and tackling the next challenge.
“I personally don’t worry about it, and I don’t think anybody else does,” she said. “It’s not more pressure or less, it’s just that when we go out and play a match we don’t think about all of the matches that we’ve won before, we just think about this match.”
Now in his 20th year leading the team, Morris has never experienced a period of uninterrupted success like this one, but he has been through enough peaks and valleys to know that focus and diligence during practice, especially early in the week, is paramount for the team to continue to thrive. He has tried to keep the stress at a minimum, but he acknowledges that the momentum has given the players a helpful nudge.
“You feel the pressure to keep it going,” he said. “So, you sort of look at it as, ‘What can we do to keep winning?’ with the understanding that it’s not going to last forever.”
After they face Davidson on Saturday, the team will travel to N.C. Central and Richmond the following weekend, then return home to play conference foes Cincinnati and Connecticut in preparation for the American Championships April 17-20 in Orlando.