Feb. 16, 2005
By Roland Hu, USD Media Relations
For a team that has appeared in the NCAA Tournament nine times since 1989, the University of San Diego women's tennis program has just missed qualifying for the tournament the past few seasons. And the Toreros are sick and tired of being spectators on the sidelines. Receiving a preseason national ranking of No. 51, the squad is bound and determined to make the Field of 64 in 2005. Just one year ago, San Diego ended with a winning record of 11-9 and finished No. 42 in the final ITA Poll, but did not receive an invitation to The Big Dance.
"We missed getting a bid [into the NCAA Tournament] two years in a row. Two years ago, we were one team out and last year, we were two teams out," commented Torero head coach Sherri Stephens. "My team is just eager to get in. We're tired of being one or two teams out."
Entering her 21st season at Alcalá Park, Stephens is very optimistic about her team's chances for postseason success this year. Not only does she have a solid core of veterans returning to slug it out on the courts, but Stephens also welcomes two players who could make an impact for her program. Juniors Emma Murphy and Lauren Perl are the leaders of the pack, as their experience and hunger to win have carved them a niche at the top of the singles ladder. Murphy, the 2004 WCC Singles Player of the Year, is the ultimate definition of a counterpuncher, while Perl, an All-WCC Singles Team selection, is an aggressive baseliner who loves to paint the lines. Even though Stephens has the services of her two junior aces, she believes the talent of the team extends all the way down the singles ladder. The depth that the Toreros have on display makes this year's team different from all the other squads Stephens has coached in previous seasons.
"I feel strongly that this team is different than a lot of teams in that in the past, I've had maybe one or two strong players at the top and the and then a pretty big drop between them and the rest of the team," said the long-time San Diego coach. "What I like about the team this year is that they are all about the same. They are all top players in their own right... from top to bottom."
Getting an invitation into the NCAA Tournament will take more than just stocking up on good players. Stephens is well aware of the fact that having a difficult schedule is imperative, not only in terms of challenging her players, but also in preparing them for the pressures and rigors of the postseason. San Diego will face 13 Top-75 teams this season, highlighted by match-ups with three Top-15 teams: Clemson (No. 7), Washington (No. 9), and USC (No. 12).
"My goals, once I came here to the University of San Diego, were to never let down on my scheduling and to always have the toughest competition I could scare up," revealed Stephens. "I know personally, I don't want to coach against anything but the best. And I know the players, when I recruit them, want to play against the best. I'd like to see what we can do against the best teams in the country."
Another reason why Stephens is so upbeat about this year's team is because of her team's approach to competition. She notices that her players are willing to fight for every ball and hang tough in a match, no matter what the score. Stephens points to the addition of redshirt sophomore Brittany Reitz as one of the main reasons for the team's never-say-die attitude. A transfer from Purdue University, Reitz has battled injuries throughout her collegiate career, but appears healthy and ready to provide the necessary spark on the court.
"Brittany has basically added [to the team's toughness]... Emma has the grit and the grind and the fighter attitude," observed Stephens. "Brittany has given us that edge, that tougher edge that we always kind of needed all the way down."
The 2005 edition of the University of San Diego women's tennis team has all the components to challenge for a NCAA bid: talent, determination and the desire to be challenged. Stephens is convinced that barring injury, her squad will be battle-tested enough to make a splash on the national scene come May.
"We're hoping that if everything falls the way it should, with injuries and playing our matches and things like that, I feel the most confident that I've felt in a long, long time."
The University of San Diego has been blessed with many great singles players over the years, including Zuzanna Lesenarova, the 1999 NCAA Singles Champion and 4-time All-American, and Julie McKeon, a three-time All-American. This year, the Toreros have a player who could make quite a name for herself in junior Emma Murphy, who is ranked No. 48 in the country. A two-time All-WCC Singles Team selection, Murphy is a fighter who does not know the meaning of the word "quit." Famous for her three-hour marathons out on the court, the native of Cork, Ireland uses her natural athleticism and fierce determination to wear down her opponents.
"Emma Murphy is my Irish secret weapon. Emma comes from a large family where she has had to fight for herself and for the attention that she needed in her life. She acts the same way on the tennis court," remarked Stephens. "She is a grinder. She will get every single ball back. I don't care how hard you hit it or where you hit it, it's coming back... She's also very smart about the game and where to place the ball on the court."
Fellow junior Lauren Perl is the complete opposite of Murphy. While Murphy enjoys rallying until the sun goes down, Perl's motto is to hit big on every point. Although the San Diego native had a rough year in 2004, she has come back stronger than ever, working hard over the summer to develop her game and mask her weaknesses. Her ability to be aggressive and go for the winner at all times will make her a match-up nightmare for any opposing player.
"Lauren's a big hitter. She hits a pretty heavy ball off of both sides. She hits a flat ball so it penetrates quickly. You have to be pretty quick to get the ball back," states Stephens.
Tara Livesay, one of two seniors on the squad, is a solid singles player who has proven to be a great asset to the Toreros over the past three years. Playing near the top of the singles ladder for much of her collegiate career, Livesay does not have many flaws in her game, but Stephens hopes to draw out the aggressive nature in the Portland, Ore. native for her final year at San Diego.
"In practice, [Livesay] can really hit it, but in matches, she backs off. She still wins, but she mainly does it on heart and emotion," said Stephens. "Tara is always there and giving everything she has in a match situation. She's always going to fight. She has a beautiful game and I'd like for her to use it."
Coming out of high school, senior Lauren Kazarian had no intentions of playing collegiate tennis. She did not enjoy the pressures that she encountered in the junior ranks and planned on spending four years as a normal student at Alcalá Park. However, when injuries nearly decimated the USD women's tennis team Kazarian's freshman year, Stephens begged the Fresno native to reconsider. Kazarian agreed to walk-on and she has been a stabilizing force within the program ever since with her excellent volleying skills and great anticipation at the net. Despite her dislike of singles, Kazarian has been a mainstay in the line-up and this year, Stephens notices a difference in her demeanor.
"In singles, she hasn't liked it all that much until this year. She's a senior and she already has a job lined up for next year, so there isn't a whole lot of pressure on her," stated Stephens. "You can see it on her face. She's relaxed and really enjoying being out there."
Dogged by injuries for much of her collegiate career, redshirt sophomore Brittany Reitz is finally healthy and will be ready to make a huge mark on the Torero program in 2005. A transfer from Purdue University, the 5-4 Reitz will use her all-around skills to complement her scrappy personality and she will see plenty of playing time as a starter in the singles and doubles line-up.
"[Reitz] has an all-court game and that's what I like about her. She's little, but she's fast. She's a grinder and will come in. She's got good volleys and good hands. She can pretty much do anything," said Stephens.
Jenny Brown has the distinction of being the team's best athlete. Not only was Brown the 1999 Class 2A Cross Country State Champion in Oregon, but she was also the Class 4A state singles tennis champion that same year. The junior's athleticism is a big reason why her serve and volley game is so effective and Stephens believes that Brown's style of play will allow her to compete with anyone in the country, especially after having such a productive sophomore year. After missing the Fall Season due to a back injury, Brown is close to a full recovery and will be counted on in the lower half of the singles chart.
"[Brown] is probably the best athlete on the team. She's muscle from head to toe and incredibly balanced," said Stephens. "She has the game, but she is working on believing in herself. Last year, she had a good year and started to believe that she was a good player."
Helene Lindstrand hails from the town of Ljungskile, Sweden and the 5'11" baseliner comes to the Linda Vista campus with booming groundstrokes and a hunger for victory. Though just a freshman, Stephens is hoping that Lindstrand will be able to provide solid depth in singles.
"I think coming in, the transition from Sweden to the University of San Diego has been difficult for her. Game style, she's a big hitter. She wants to win the point in a couple of shots. She hates to lose," commented Stephens. "I'm hoping she'll step up and win at No. 6."
The final member of the Torero squad is Jenna Anderson. The sophomore played as a walk-on last year and will help strengthen the team with her strong net skills. Although not expected to be a factor in singles, Stephens thinks she will be able to help in the doubles department.
"[Anderson] has worked really hard on her game. She's got a good serve and some good volleys. She's looking to get into the doubles line-up," stated Stephens.
At the start of every season, one of the most difficult tasks that is presented to a coach is how to pair up her players for doubles. So many factors are at play when determining a good team, including chemistry, style of play, and injuries. However this year, Stephens is extremely confident in all of her competing duos and will expect some solid doubles from all three teams.
"This is the first group of one, two, and three that we feel really comfortable with all three teams. In previous years, there was always a spot, a person, a team that wasn't as strong," confessed Stephens. "The chemistry, the game styles... I don't see a weakness in any of the three teams."
In women's collegiate tennis today, the emphasis of doubles play is being shifted. Rather than serving and volleying on all points, the girls are now staying back and hitting from the baseline. Their net skills are not fully developed in the junior ranks and when they have to play doubles in college, they will go with their strengths, which are their groundstrokes. However, Stephens believes that her duo of Jenny Brown and Lauren Kazarian are a return to the classic teams of the past and for her, it is quite refreshing to witness.
"You watch Jenny and Lauren play, and you'll see how true doubles is played. Serve and volley, I-formation, poaching, crossing, angles, touch, lobs, overheads... it's true doubles," said Stephens.
The partnership of Emma Murphy and Lauren Perl is characterized much like the new wave of collegiate doubles today. Perl is a banging baseliner who stays back and hits winners from the end line while Murphy is up at the net, waiting to put away the volley. Though the two have differing game styles, Stephens is confident that this pairing will thrive under competition.
"We're talking about The Odd Couple here. I'm mixing two game styles," stated Stephens. "Emma's got good hands and great reactions and Lauren can put the ball on a dime off the baseline. I think they'll compete pretty well."
The final pairing expected to break into the starting three is Tara Livesay and Brittany Reitz. One of the reasons why Stephens is so excited about their partnership is because of the awesome chemistry the two display on the court. In addition, both players do not have many weaknesses and they will be counted on to solidify the Toreros doubles line-up.
"I happen to put them together in the Fall and they loved playing together... Of the three teams, they are more balanced with each other," commented Stephens. "Both of them have great returns, both have pretty good serves, both of them have good volleys. They will give us a lot of stability."