As a veteran women's college tennis coach, UNLV's Kevin Cory thought he had seen just about everything before the start of the 2012 dual-match season.
In January, the Rebels were looking forward to a promising spring campaign. They opened at No. 36 in the Campbell/ITA College Tennis Rankings and appeared underrated as the lineup looked strong from top to bottom.
But in the team's first match, senior Rumyana Terzieva sustained a season-ending knee injury, and everything changed.
The regular season did not turn out as expected, but Cory remains optimistic as his second-seeded team (15-8, 5-2 MWC) takes the court to play No. 7 Colorado State (4-15, 0-7) at 2 p.m. today in the Mountain West Championships at the Aztec Tennis Center in San Diego.
"We're certainly capable of winning," said Cory, who is finishing his 13th year at UNLV. "But we're going to have to beat a couple of good teams to do that. I think we're one of three or four teams that have a legitimate shot at winning."
The Rebels lost 4-3 matches to both Texas Christian and Wyoming in the regular season, but Cory thinks his short-handed squad will avenge those setbacks.
"The two matches we lost came down to the final set of the final match," he said. "And we had leads in both of those matches."
The UNLV lineup is top-heavy, with No. 1 Lucia Batta, No. 2 Aleksandra Josifoska and No. 3 Nives Pavlovic a combined 21-0 in league play.
Cory, whose team is ranked 48th, said the trio's perfection is unprecedented.
"I honestly can't remember a year where any other team has done that," the coach said. "Generally, you're going to lose at least one or two matches. You'd be hard-pressed to see that happen again in the next 10 years."
Pavlovic, a junior from Belgrade, Serbia, said confidence is running high at the top of the lineup.
"It's awesome," she said. "We've been dominating, and we just know we are going to win every time we play."
But the Rebels' problems start at the fourth spot in the lineup, where Terzieva was scheduled to spend the season. An assortment of inexperienced players had to be moved up to fill the void, and the Rebels have gone 36-32 at the bottom positions as a result.
"It's a significant factor," said Cory, whose team went 20-6 and earned the regular-season MWC championship last year. "You've got to have depth to win championships. The No. 1 player's points count the same as No. 6. The injury obviously hurt us, to have our only senior go out in the first weekend of the spring."
Batta, a sophomore from Budapest, Hungary, insisted the injury cannot be the focus of this weekend's competition.
"It's very frustrating, but you can't do anything about it," the 2011 MWC Freshman of the Year said. "You just have to get over it."
Getting over it will require the team to overcome yet another obstacle, as Terzieva also would have played a key role in doubles. Without her, the Rebels have gone 33-33 overall and 8-10 in MWC doubles play this season.
"The injured player was really good in doubles," Pavlovic said. "And when you win in doubles, that motivates you to win in singles."
A victory today would lift the Rebels into Saturday's semifinals, where they would face either No. 3 San Diego State or No. 6 New Mexico. TCU (15-5, 7-0) enters the tournament as the top seed.
The championship match is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday. A tourney championship would guarantee the Rebels their fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
Jeff Wollard is a freelance reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.