By John Holt
Special to the Eagle
Marco Island’s Lauren Embree leads her University of Florida tennis team into battle against Duke at 10 a.m. on Friday, making a run for a third straight NCAA championship.
The Gators are the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Championships and opened defense of their NCAA title by defeating Marist, 4-0, and No. 23 Georgia Tech, 4-0, in the first two rounds and advanced to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana for the round of 16.
While Florida holds a 6-0 mark against the Blue Devils in NCAA tournament play, it did drop a stunning 4-0 match to the Blue Devils in this year’s only regular season meeting.
Embree, former Lely grad, and Sophie Oyen won their doubles match. The clinching singles point for Duke came before Embree had finished her singles match.
The Gators won a thrilling 4-3 decision over Duke in the 2012 NCAA semifinals on its way to the fifth of six national championships.
Coach Roland Thornqvist, in a press conference, said, “The team has trained hard, we know we are ready... History shows we play better when the stakes go up.”
After tennis practice on Wednesday, at the University of Illinois, Embree took a moment to talk about Duke.
“Duke will be a challenge,” she said. “I know they have had some unfortunate injuries, but they are going to come out fighting so we have to be ready for them.”
John Holt, now interning with USA Basketball’s Communication’s Department in Colorado Springs, did a Q&A with Embree recently. In 2012 he met Embree while working the 2012 SEC Tennis Tournament in Oxford, Miss.
Embree told Holt that she considered the Duke loss a turning point in the season.
Holt: I caught up with you after your team was shut out by No. 4 Duke back on Feb. 17. Looking back, do you feel like that loss was a needed wake up call at that point in the season?
Embree: Yeah definitely. I think that weekend started the turning point of our season. Obviously we had that Duke loss, and then beating (No. 1) North Carolina (the next day) was a great confidence boost for us. To win the SEC Tournament, to beat (Texas) A&M, beat Georgia, again, is an accomplishment we’re really proud of and hopefully we can just keep it up.
Holt: I’m sure at the end of last year and probably even after your freshman and sophomore seasons, you had the option to leave school early and turn pro. Yet you never did. What was the ultimate deciding factor that made you come back every year?
Embree: I just wanted to stay loyal to my coaches and my team. I told them that I would be here for four years. So that’s kind of what I wanted to do, was be here for four years and help them as much as I could. Win titles and win SEC Championships, and win national championships. So that was a big thing to be loyal to my coaches and the girls on the team. Another thing was that I just wasn’t ready to go and play pro, not only with my tennis but in life. I’m really happy that I stayed all four years because I’ve met people here that have been influential in my life. I was never probably going to leave until I graduated. And, I wanted a degree. I didn’t want to leave school without a degree.
Holt: This spring, unlike the first three years, you’ve spent a majority of the season ranked as the nation’s top singles player. What’s that been like for you, walking onto the court with a No. 1 ranking beside your name?
Embree: It’s definitely exciting to have that my senior year. But, to be honest, I don’t really try and think about it that much, or focus on it, because then you just think about wrong things and you mind is in a different spot if you try to focus on your wins and losses. I’m kind of just there, to do well for my team when I play every match.
Holt: What was your favorite road venue or environment during your four years?
Embree: Honestly, I would say NCAA’s my sophomore year at Stanford. They always seem to have a good crowd and playing them in the finals, for a championship, at Stanford, with 2,000 people there, it doesn’t really get much better than that.
Unless leading the team to a third straight NCAA championship.
Embree won’t have much time to rest following the team event as she is scheduled to play in the singles and doubles competition that begins on Tuesday, a day after the team championship concludes.
Writer Roger LaLonde contributed to the story.