Sophomore Kari Miller struggled across two hard-fought matches against stiff competition at the Fall Nationals. Grace Beal/Daily. Buy this photo.

After dominating the first set, sophomore Kari Miller was facing a 5-4 deficit in the second. 

No. 31 Miller had no interest in playing a third, alternating her groundstroke placement from corner to corner, slowly wearing down her opponent, No. 54 Lisa Zaar of Pepperdine. 

Zaar floated a ball to the middle of the court and Miller pounced on it before swarming the net. 

Zaar responded with an untouchable passing shot, stealing the set. 

The perfect setup without the finish was a recurring theme as Miller took on the 32 best players in the country at the ITA National Fall Championships in San Diego, California. 

Miller clinched her spot after winning the singles title at the ITA Midwest Regional Championships, but the jump in the surrounding talent was apparent early.

Pitted against No. 64 Tiphanie Fiquet of Ole Miss, Miller quickly fell into a 3-0 hole and eventually dropped the first set, 6-2. 

“We got out there the day before,” Michigan associate coach Teryn Ashley-Fitch said. “I think just kind of getting used to the conditions in that first set, I think it took her a while to kind of get into the match.”

It looked like more of the same when Fiquet took the first game of the second set. 

Then Miller completely flipped the script. She took six of the next seven games en route to an emphatic second-set victory. 

“It was a really good second set,” Ashley-Fitch said. “I thought the level was really high. She was forcing the girl to make some more mistakes.” 

Fiquet swiftly retook the momentum in the third set, racing out to another 3-0 lead. 

Miller was able to close the gap 3-1, only for Fiquet to go on to dominate, finishing the deciding set, 6-1. 

“It just kind of got away from her a little bit,” Ashley-Fitch said. “(Miller) won that fourth game … and just unfortunately made a couple errors. She can put pressure on in that game and all of a sudden you’re climbing your way back into the match, and it could be a totally different third set.”

The second day of the tournament pitted Miller against Zaar in the first round of the consolation draw.

Each game included prolonged rallies between two players who refused to make unforced errors. 

Both were patient, making well-timed decisions to change the pace by rushing the net or rifling a shot down the line. Often, the only way to win a point was through incredible shots.

When Miller was up, 2-1, Zaar crowded the net after a heavy approach shot. Miller was forced to take the ball on the run, but was able to curve a slice around Zaar that barely scraped the line.

“You’ve got to play at a high level the whole time,” Ashley-Fitch said. “You can’t give away free points. I thought Kari did a really good job of sort of blocking out any distractions and being tough.”

After eeking out another game to reach 3-1, Miller took full command, winning nine consecutive points en route to a 6-3 victory in the first set. 

To start the second set, Miller continued to force her opponent to bring her best. Everytime Zaar floated a ball in the middle of the court, Miller would keep her guessing, either ripping a shot to the corners or dominating at the net to gain a 2-1 lead.

Zaar responded accordingly, delivering heavier balls at Miller. Miller’s narrow lead evaporated, as Zaar snatched the momentum and won four straight games — taking the second set, 6-4. 

Miller’s failed attempt to climb back in the second resulted from a common trend — Miller’s strong baseline play set her up perfectly, but an unforced error from Miller or a circus shot from her opponent wiped the slate clean. 

“I feel like (Miller) was setting herself up,” Ashley-Fitch said. “She played an unbelievable point. … Zaar came up with something unreal in response to win the set.”

Unforced errors piled up for Miller in the third, as Zaar won the deciding set, 6-2.

Despite dropping both matches on the weekend, Miller proved she can hang with the best player in the country. Cleaning up a few errors and finishing more points could have tilted the scales in both bouts.

“We talked a little about getting free points off her serve … and being more aggressive on the return games,” Ashley-Fitch said “She’s so solid off the ground. She’s fit. I know she’ll bounce back.”