Lexi Keberle photo

Lexi Keberle is 6-0 at the No. 1 singles spot and 5-0 in doubles competition for the Badgers this season.

UW ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS

Lexi Keberle has never been one to shy away from a challenge.

That’s why the University of Wisconsin freshman is eager to test herself against some of the top tennis players in the nation this weekend in the ITA National Team Indoor Championship at Nielsen Tennis Stadium.

“I’m ready to compete really hard and show that I can compete with the best of them,” Keberle said. “It’s really exciting to have the opportunity this weekend to play the top teams in the nation.”

The Badgers will get a chance to do that in Friday’s opening round when they face third-ranked Florida, the reigning ITA Championship and NCAA champions. The 16-team field includes 14 of the nation’s top 25 teams.

Each team is guaranteed three matches this weekend and the Badgers figure to be underdogs in every contest, despite being off to their best start in over 30 years with a 6-0 record.

One of the big reasons for that start is Keberle, who is 6-0 at the No. 1 singles spot and 5-0 in doubles competition during the spring dual season.

Winning is nothing new for Keberle, UW’s first Blue Chip recruit who was ranked No. 23 nationally by the Tennis Recruiting Network. She compiled a 61-0 record in her first two seasons at West Bend East High School, winning two WIAA state titles along the way.

But rather than trying to become just the fourth player to win four state titles, Keberle decided to leave her prep team and focus on club competition.

“My goal was to make a name for myself nationally and compete at a higher level in junior tennis,” said Keberle, who had a 13-6 record against other Blue Chip recruits.

“It’s pretty rare to have a player like that,” UW second-year coach Kelcy McKenna said. “Being that Wisconsin doesn’t necessarily have a bevy of (elite) tennis players, I think it’s amazing to keep somebody who’s from Wisconsin in Wisconsin. So that was a big deal for us that she stayed loyal to the program and just wanted to help build something special and wear the W. It’s really cool.

“She’s hungry to get better and that’s something you love to see. We don’t know what her ceiling is and that’s exciting. She still has a lot of stuff she can improve on and she’s like a sponge right now and is absorbing a ton of information.”

Keberle, who was recruited by former coach Tina Samara, couldn’t really picture herself going anywhere other than UW.

“So far being a Badger is what I dreamed of and even better,” said Keberle, who currently is No. 98 in the ITA singles rankings. “I love my teammates, I love my coaches and just playing for my state has been really incredible. I think this group is really special and I think they can help me reach my potential. I think Wisconsin athletics in general is one of the best experiences you can get.

“There’s always been something about competing for my state with the W on my chest. And winning two state titles here when I was in high school on these courts just meant a lot to me and want to stay here and keep competing.”

The arrival of Keberle and fellow freshman MaryAnn Rompf from Bradenton, Florida, and redshirt senior Sara Castallano, a transfer from Kansas State, has helped boost the outlook for the Badgers, who were 4-16 overall and 0-11 in the Big Ten Conference last season.

“I think it’s made a big difference in terms of where our program can continue to head,” McKenna said. “And the freshmen who are now sophomores (Michelle Linden, Melissa Pick and Christina Zordani) have been in our system for a year and everyone has take a step forward in their improvement. We’re excited about the future and getting better every day.”

The Badgers, who are in the championship field by virtue of being the hosts, are the only unranked team in the field. The other 15 are among the top 21 in the latest ITA rankings, led by No. 2 Vanderbilt.

Seven of the top 10 individuals will be competing, including No. 1 ranked Bianca Turati of Texas.

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Dennis Punzel covers Wisconsin Badgers volleyball, women's basketball for the Wisconsin State Journal.