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Sophomore racquets step up for Buckeyes

Normally, when a top player goes down with an injury, it’s panic time for a coach and his or her team.

When the women’s tennis team’s No. 1 singles player and senior captain Paloma Escobedo went down in early March, coach Chuck Merzbacher didn’t have to reach for the panic button.

Instead, he and his team put their faith in the sophomore trio of Gabby Steele, Fidan Manashirova and Kara Cecil.

Their faith has paid off in wins. With a combined record of 55-30, the three have helped the Buckeyes (10-8 overall) to a winning record. The team is 3-1 in the Big Ten, with its lone loss coming against Northwestern, which leads the conference with Michigan.

“They’ve stepped up,” said Merzbacher, who isn’t surprised by his players’ success. “They were a good recruiting class coming in. I knew they were going to be significant. They’ve done that and more.”

With the loss of Escobedo, the players were forced to fill in the gap.

“I think that everyone had to step up,” Manashirova said. “We all had to play our best tennis every single match.”

The women were all 5-star recruits coming out of high school, and have had little difficulty adjusting to collegiate tennis.

“Looking at the past captains and leaders, you learn from that. It’s really easy to adapt quickly here,” Manashirova said.

The players’ quick learning curves have impressed Merzbacher.

“They’ve adapted to college tennis very quickly,” he said. “They’ve come in; they’ve learned how to win right off the bat. They just keep moving up the lineup. There’s been no delay in their progress; they’ve gone right to it.”

On the court, the women play with a quiet intensity. Despite attending high school in different regions (Manashirova in California, Steele in Ohio and Cecil in Florida), the women play with a natural chemistry.

In less than two seasons, they have secured 103 combined wins in singles play. But when it comes to their success, the women aren’t ones to promote themselves.

“We just keep having fun. We don’t take anything too seriously,” Steele said. “We just kind of go for it.”

Merzbacher thinks otherwise.

“I think they push each other. … They compete with each other, and they’re great teammates to each other at the same time,” he said. “They’re going to be an important part of this year and for the future.”

It’s not the future or the past that interests Manashirova and Steele. The women prefer to focus on their next opponent.

“Just taking it one match at a time. I just want to win every single match that I play,” Manashirova said. “I just want to think about what’s next.”

Steele also believes her next match always has to be better than her last.

“I think there’s always room for improvement and you can always do better,” she said. “Every single day that you go out on the court, work hard to improve.”

The hard work and focus is paying off and Merzbacher doesn’t hesitate to say he’s proud.

“Those three stepped up,” he said. “I think that shows the type of kids they are.”

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