May 19, 2011
STANFORD, CA – Nancy Harris lined her team up after practice Thursday and asked them a series of simple questions.
The veteran coach, who will be coaching her team in her fifth straight Sweet 16 when her Clemson Tigers face No. 2 Florida Friday at 3 p.m. (EST), wanted to know who could break a pencil with their bare hands. Of course, they all said yes. When she asked who can break two, only a few spoke up. When she asked about three, there were just two that said they could do it.
Finally, she asked, “Who could break four?” That’s when freshman Masha Belaya said she could do it.
“I’m testing my strength,” said a smiling Belaya following practice at Stanford University’s West Campus Courts in Stanford, CA. “My work ethic is paying off.”
Belaya’s strength will be tested greatly on Friday as she goes up against the school that was just down the road from her hometown of Melbourne, FL, and one of her long time rivals – the Gators’ Alex Cercone.
“I’m playing up against a girl I have played since I was 10,” Belaya said. “We grew up in junior (tennis) together so it is kind of cool to be in college now, while playing and representing our schools – I’m excited.”
Belaya and Cercone were both recruited by the Gators on the junior circuit, but Belaya chose Clemson, while Cercone went on to Florida. Both players have made major contributions on the respective teams at flight five in singles, while also at times playing the four spot.
Belaya has produced a 24-12 record so far this season in singles, while Cercone is a member of the No. 1 ranked doubles team in the country.
“It’s incredible. I can’t describe how excited I am,” Belaya said. “Even being here, I’m seeing all these different players from all different teams that I played against on the junior circuit. Just to see them here all playing college tennis now is just so weird.
“We were just talking about how crazy it is that we have now all finished our freshman year. It has just all gone by so fast. It is really exciting.”
Despite Clemson’s 4-0 loss to Florida in the ITA National Quarterfinals back on Feb. 18 in Charlottesville, VA. Belaya is excited about Friday’s matchup because she knows she can play with her old rival and has defeated her in head-to-head match ups before.
“I have beaten her in juniors before, so hopefully things will turn out the same way,” Belaya said.
As for the tournament itself and having the privilege to play against the school from her home state with a national championship at stake, Belaya says she is just taking the moment in and enjoying her first trip to the Sweet 16.
“It is really special being here and being in California,” she said. “Having all these things and experiencing all the things we have experienced, it’s been amazing. I have been to California before, but when I have traveled, I have never stayed in such nice hotels and eaten such great food and everything. So it has been really nice.
“I have been out to California many times, but this one is especially special because I’m with a team and I’m here representing Clemson. It is exciting.”
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