Bears face key stretch against top-10 schools

Michael Tao/File
Sophomore Alice Duranteau has garnered a 23-6 singles record this season.

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The first three months of Pac-12 women’s tennis play have left four teams – Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC – undefeated in conference play. In a dream scenario for the conference and for fans, these four teams will play what turns out to be a round-robin tournament over the next eight days to crown the regular season champion.

No. 10 Cal (15-4, 7-0 in the Pac-12) will have the advantage of playing its first two matches at home, although rankings suggest that the Bears will be underdogs in both bouts. No. 1 UCLA will visit for a 1:30 match Friday, and No. 4 USC comes to the Hellman Tennis Center for a noon match Saturday.

Based on past performance, the Bruins (20-0, 7-0) remain the favorite to capture the conference crown — the squad barely eked out a win over Cal and has trumped USC twice, all in nonconference play. Blue-chip recruit Robin Anderson, ranked fourth in the nation, has given the Bruins stability at the top court, although Anderson fell to Cal freshman Zsofi Susanyi in the teams’ previous meeting. Unrivaled depth has also given UCLA success, as the Bruins have won 19 of 20 doubles points and posted a 38-1 record on courts five and six combined.

“I look at us, we are 15-4, and I think a couple things here and there and we would be in the same spot as UCLA,” coach Amanda Augustus said.

On Saturday, the Bears will have to grapple with the top of the USC (18-2, 7-0) singles lineup; freshman Zoe Scandalis, junior Danielle Lao and freshman Sabrina Santamaria are college tennis’s answer to the Big Three. Despite a cornucopia of big names, the match will likely come down to the middle of the singles lineup, which will pit raw talent on the Trojans’ side against the Bears’ big match experience.

Stanford’s performance against the Los Angeles schools this weekend will indicate if the squad is capable of making another run to the NCAA finals. Eschewing participation in the ITA Indoor tournament in early February, the Cardinal (15-0, 6-0) opted for a match against then No. 1 Florida in a 2011 NCAA championship rematch, which resulted a 5-2 Stanford victory. Led by junior Mallory Burdette and sophomore Nicole Gibbs, who are also a top doubles partnership, Stanford has the advantage of playing its crucial next three matches at home, including against Cal next weekend.

Even if Cal is the biggest dark horse in the race, blue-and-gold faithful have reasons to be optimistic that the team will capture its first conference championship. The Bears’ previous losses to Pac-12 competitors were all without No. 8 Jana Juricova, the defending NCAA singles champion who has missed stretches with a lower back injury this year. The senior’s presence may have made a difference in Cal’s visit to Los Angeles in late February, which ended in two 4-3 losses.

“I think (a conference championship) is something that’s been a goal for the girls,” coach Augustus said. “I really just think by the time we get into these matches we’ve done all the preparation and we are ready to go.”

Juricova’s return cements the next two weekends as the most pivotal stretch of the regular season for all four teams. Establishing a Pac-12 hierarchy will go a long way in handicapping the national landscape and prove to be a harbinger for the NCAA championships, looming less than a month away.