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AL-SHIKARCHY POISED FOR PERFECT FINISH

Mariam Al-Shikarchy won't try to fool you. She knows what her record is. Then again, it's pretty easy to remember when you're undefeated.

The senior at Niagara improved her career regular season tennis record in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference to 27-0 last weekend when she blanked Fairfield's Diana Webb, 6-0, 6-0, at first singles.

"I knew I had never lost a regular season match, but it wasn't that big a deal to me," Al-Shikarchy said. "I just want to continue winning. I don't want to think too much about it and make it a huge thing or become afraid of losing."

Losing is something Al-Shikarchy takes particularly hard. After a strong 10-2 record in the fall season, she stumbled a bit at the start of 2005, losing three non-conference matches out of her first four of the spring semester.

To get her game back on track she renewed emphasis on her strengths. She hit the gym hard to keep her fitness level high while concentrating on her footwork, forehand and serve.

That was the easy part. The hard part was being patient with herself to break out of her slump.

"I just wasn't feeling my game. It happens to every player in a slump," Al-Shikarchy said. "I wasn't feeling my shots and I couldn't control the ball as well as I usually do. It just takes time, but it took a little longer than I'd wish. . . . It was very difficult for me, because I'm a perfectionist. I was so frustrated at the beginning of the semester. It required patience, but sometimes I don't have any."

Finding that comfortable level of patience has certainly helped her game. She has won four straight singles matches -- five in doubles -- dropping just six games in her last eight sets to run her overall mark to 15-5.

But it's not just Al-Shikarchy who has played impressive tennis for Niagara (8-7 overall, 4-0 MAAC). The team is on a 27-0 run in regular season MAAC matches. The last time the Purple Eagles lost an in-season conference match was against Loyola on Oct. 8, 2001, when several starters were out with the flu.

For coach Paul Calkins, the key to Niagara's success has been its string of captains. For the last two seasons, it was No. 1 singles player Milena Matijevic, who filled that role while earning the MAAC Most Outstanding Women's Tennis Player honors in 2003 and 2004.

This year, it's Al-Shikarchy's turn not only to help set the tone on the court at first singles, but to play the important and often overlooked role of captain.

"All along Milena kind of overshadowed Mariam," Calkins said. "Mariam and I talked in June and I told her that grass never grows under a shaded tree. She was always a solid player with a tremendous work ethic who pushed herself to a higher level. This year, she's developed into a senior captain with a leadership role.

"That role needs to be taken seriously. You're a type of player-administrator and a bridge between the coach and the players. It's one of the most important links. She understands that and has put the team's needs ahead of her own personal needs. She's been able to wear a lot of hats and still continues to focus on her own game," Calkins said.

She and the rest of the Purple Eagles are poised to contend for another MAAC conference title. Winners of the 2003 title and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, Niagara lost last year's conference championship to Fairfield.

"We all learned from our loss last year and everybody on the team is so determined to win," Al-Shikarchy said. "Last year we were a little nervous. It was our first year as defending champions and our first time trying to defend a title. Everyone was a little tense. This year, we're back with a vengeance. We just want it."

The Purple Eagles host Siena on Saturday and Marist on Sunday. The MAAC Championships will be held April 23-25 in New York City.

Around campus

St. Bonaventure's men's tennis team hopes the experience of close matches will pay off this weekend at the Atlantic 10 Championships in Monroeville, Pa. The Bonnies closed out the spring season with an 11-9 record, but since February, nine of their 14 matches have been decided by 4-3 or 5-2.

"Everything has been close this year and I'm not sure what's going to happen at A-10s. It's wide open," Bona coach Michael Bates said. "We've worked a lot on individual things to strengthen up our weaknesses. We've worked on getting them to play smarter, to look how to win a point and not just hit the ball."

The Bonnies finished third last season and have won three A-10 titles in five years.

Dartmouth junior Julia Drury (Nichols) was named a second team All-American in women's squash. Drury finished the season ranked 15th in the country and with a 12-3 overall mark. The previous season, she finished ranked 28th, 10-4 overall.

Kent State sophomore Amy Cucinotta (Amherst) took third place in the floor exercise (9.80) and 10th in the vault (9.675) at the Mid-American Conference women's gymnastics championships. She was part of the Golden Flashes' MAC title team which will compete at the NCAA Central Regionals next weekend in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com