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Kari Miller leads Michigan women's tennis into the NCAA Tournament

Ann Arbor — After a standout junior career, Kari Miller had opportunities to play college tennis at a number of well-known programs and at Ann Arbor Pioneer, where she won two state singles championships.

And while the blue-chip recruit was looking at places like USC and Virginia, two miles from her high school, Ronni Bernstein, now in her 17th yearTh This season as Michigan's head coach of the women's tennis team, he made the most significant and real attempt to keep Miller at home. Miller knew she was at the top of Bernstein's list, and that ultimately meant everything.

Now, in Miller's final season at Michigan, she has helped lead the Wolverines (26-3) to a No. 2 national ranking in the regular season and a No. 3 seed, the highest in program history, in the NCAA Tournament. Miller is ranked No. 5 in singles nationally with an overall singles record of 28-7, including 13-4 in top-ranked doubles matches.

“Kari is super competitive,” Bernstein said. “It doesn’t matter who she plays, she believes. She’s always ready.”

Michigan, which has an 18-game winning streak, will host first- and second-round games and will face Chicago State (16-12) at the Varsity Tennis Center on Saturday at 2 p.m. Notre Dame (17-9) plays Xavier (19-5) at 11 a.m. The winners will meet on Sunday at 1 p.m

Miller, the Big Ten Tennis Athlete of the Year for two consecutive years, wasn't sure how her final season at Michigan would pan out. She graduated from the Ross School of Business with a degree in business administration and worked at a bank in New York last summer. There are tennis courts in the city and on the outskirts, but transportation to the courts was expensive. While she was able to train occasionally on weekends, she used the time she had to exercise, particularly running and exercises specific to tennis moves, and she made smart, healthy dietary choices.

“She’s really gotten into great shape,” Bernstein said.

Miller estimates she practiced about as much throughout last summer as the Wolverines did in a week during the season. She has spent most of her life playing tennis, so improving her strokes was no problem when she returned to Ann Arbor. However, she had some doubts because she hadn't scored much.

“I thought, gosh, I don't want to come back and not be able to help my team because I'm bad,” said Miller, whose sister Reese is a freshman on the team.

The truth is that she returned to campus and found that she was actually refreshed, having essentially given herself a mental break from the game. Not playing tennis regularly ultimately helped her with tennis, and her disciplined training off the court made her faster.

“I think that was one of the reasons I came back and had a good fall,” she said. “I think it was a really good break for me, but also allowed me to see what my life could be after tennis.”

Her attitude to life after tennis initially included a return to New York, where a job was waiting for her. But at her parents' urging, Miller decided to ask the bank for a one-year deferral – which was granted in January – so she could continue her professional career. Miller realized and told her future employer that if she didn't try now, she would never get another chance like that in tennis.

“I kind of have to do it now or it’s never going to happen, and I don’t want to regret not trying,” Miller said. “Obviously (last summer) I didn't know how my season was going to go, but now I've continued to do well and had a good season. I definitely feel like I made the right choice.”

First things first: the NCAA team and individual tournaments. Miller, Julia Fliegner and Gala Mesochoritou qualified for the singles tournament, where Miller is seeded number 4. Milller and his longtime doubles partner Jaedan Brown, ranked No. 8 nationally, will also play for the doubles championship. Miller will be an All-American in singles and doubles this season.

Michigan wins the Big Ten Tournament title for the third time in a row and enters the NCAA Tournament with a lot of momentum. Last week, Bernstein called this the best team she's ever had at Michigan. The Wolverines placed second at the ITA National Team Indoor Championship earlier this year against Oklahoma State, the top-ranked team in the country, losing in a close 4-3 game.

“By winning the Big Ten Tournament, winning against Wisconsin and Ohio State along the way, and especially the last game against Ohio State, I think we showed that we are still as strong as we were back in February in the ( ITA) Hall,” said Miller. “It definitely boosted confidence. Everyone is doing pretty well. I think we’re confident we can fight really hard.”

If Michigan advances this weekend, it will have a Sweet 16 matchup on May 11 with a chance at the Elite 8. But Miller doesn't think her playing career at Varsity Tennis Center is over any time soon. She wasn't sure what her college future would look like after graduating from Pioneer. Miller is grateful that Bernstein was the coach who believed in her the most and that she chose to play back home at Michigan, where she helped build a nationally recognized program.

“It was really great from a team perspective,” Miller said. “I think a lot of it is because of our proximity. As leaders, we were able to show the younger girls what it means to compete really hard and play for Michigan and the team. They got into it and it took over. As long as people commit to whatever they do, we’ve seen real success.”

That's what Miller and the Wolverines want to show this weekend.

NCAA Women's Tennis Tournament

WHO: No. 3 seed Michigan (26-3) vs. Chicago State (16-12)

When: Saturday, 2 p.m

Where: Varsity Tennis Center, Ann Arbor

Remarkable: Notre Dame (17-9) plays Xavier (19-5) at 11 a.m. The winners will meet on Sunday at 1 p.m

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