Junior Taylor Mannix (left) and Mokhtari have proved to be a powerful duo in women’s NCAA Division-III tennis this year. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
Junior Taylor Mannix (left) and Freshman Ariana Mokhtari have proved to be a powerful duo in women’s NCAA Division-III tennis this year. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
Freshman Ariana Mokhtari practices for the NCAA doubles championship this coming weekend. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
Mokhtari practices for the NCAA doubles championship this coming weekend. Photo by Devika Agarwal.

While the rest of the women’s tennis team enters into the off-season and the relaxing last weeks of the spring quarter, two of the team’s members are gearing up for what will be the largest tournament of their careers. Junior Taylor Mannix and freshman Ariana Mokhtari are preparing for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) doubles championship, hosted this year at the Battleground Tennis Complex in Fredericksburg, Virginia on May 28-30.

As one of three doubles teams heading to the tournament from California, Mannix and Mokhtari are in the spotlight of college tennis. As a team, they have used this past regular season to pave their way to Nationals. However, the current success of Mannix and Mokhtari together was not a focus point early in the season.

“Throughout the season, I have enjoyed playing doubles more and more,” Mokhtari said. “I didn’t have many expectations, but every match was fun to play, because Taylor and I are both doing something we’re passionate for and push each other to improve.”

Entering into the season, head coach Erin Ness knew little about the Mannix and Mokhtari combination, but they soon emerged as a power to be reckoned with.

“As they played more matches together, I could start to see that they had potential to be one of the top teams in the region, and possibly the nation,” Ness said.

As this was Mokhtari’s first season with the team, she and Mannix started with no playing time together. But the experience both Mokhtari and Mannix now possess after this first year converts into a doubles game they are comfortable and confident in, and both enjoy the benefits that only playing with a partner can offer.

“Our doubles game has improved a lot since the beginning of the season,” Mannix said. “I feel like we clicked as partners pretty early on and have just been improving since. We balance each other out pretty well, because Ariana is such a hard hitter and she always sets me up very well at the net. We have also become such great friends — which makes for good chemistry on the court as well.”

The road to Nationals hasn’t been an easy one, as Mokhtari and Mannix headed to Ventura County for the Ojai Valley Tournament late last month and returned with slightly different results than expected.

“Ariana and I did okay at Ojai,” Mannix said. “We had a solid first round and then a tough second round against the two seed.”

Mannix and Mokhtari could also feel the tough loss against Redlands University, but didn’t lose their fighting mentality.

“The one match I know we both would have liked to win was against Redlands,” Mannix said. “I think we played our best that day. Sometimes your best is just not good enough to win. But we left it all out on the court, and that is all we can do.”

Fortunately, the entire season has not been plagued with shortcomings — Mokhtari and Mannix can look back and enjoy the triumphs that they worked for. A win against Chapman University’s best doubles team — then ranked first in the region while Mokhtari and Mannix ranked fifth — captured the highlight of their season.

“A match that we played extremely well in was the match against Chapman,” Mokhtari said. “Going into that match, we had nothing to lose, but there was still the pressure to win for the team as a whole. The win boosted our ranking to help secure our spot in Nationals.”

While UC Santa Cruz plays in a Division III league, some opponents that appeared on this year’s calendar were Division I, including Bakersfield and San Jose State.

“The match I thought was a turning point for them was their win over UC Riverside,” Ness said. “UC Riverside is a good DI team, and the win against them gave them a lot of confidence. I think it made them realize how good they could be and what they are capable of. Confidence is a key factor in tennis, and without it, players and teams don’t perform.”

As a new doubles team on the collegiate circuit, the girls proved to other more seasoned teams that they could also find victory, and their record boasts wins that both are proud to mention.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better regular season,” Mokhtari said. “Playing together as a team for the first time was a lot of fun, and we were able to grow with each other.”

For both Mokhtari and Mannix, their first appearances at the NCAA tournament translate to enthusiasm, but neither is forgetting her first and foremost goal: the girls are keeping the championship in their sights, ready to vie for the title.

“I don’t really know what to expect at the NCAA tournament,” Mokhtari said. “It’ll be the first time either of us is going, so we’re both just excited at this point. I know we have the ability to compete with any team, we just have to play smart and make easy shots. As of now, everything is pretty much out of our hands, so we’re just going to be practicing and preparing until we leave so [that] we’re ready.”