With a 5-4 record, three true freshmen and the pressure of defending their NCAA championship from last season, the Gators women’s tennis team still has a lot to prove.

After dropping from the No. 3 slot in the country to being unranked during the team’s two-game road stretch in California last week, No. 34 Florida worked its way back into the ITA rankings after defeating Saint Mary’s and Stanford in closely contested matches.

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But the team’s uphill climb back to its championship caliber play last year will only get steeper as SEC competition begins in Mississippi.

"The SEC is brutal this year,” coach Roland Thornqvist said in a release. “This is the most balanced I've seen (the SEC) in my 17 years at Florida.”

UF will face No. 7 Ole Miss on Thursday at 6 p.m. and unranked Mississippi State on Saturday at noon. The Rebels (9-1) are off to their best start in the program’s history, while the Bulldogs (8-2) are hot off a six-match win streak. Both Ole Miss and Mississippi State are undefeated at home.

The Gators’ biggest problem during the early part of 2018 has been their doubles play. Florida hasn’t won a doubles point since its match against Wisconsin on Feb. 9, and although that didn’t stop the team from winning its last two matches, it would like to avoid falling behind against both the Rebels and Bulldogs. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are undefeated this season when they secured the doubles point.

Despite the difficulty of the conference, which includes 10 other teams ranked in the ITA top-50 poll, Thornqvist is confident in Florida’s chances to win a second consecutive national title.

“Last year, we didn't win the league and we won the national championship,” he said. “I think this year could be the same.”

Follow River Wells on Twitter @riverhwells and contact him at rwells@alligator.org.

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