For the Cal women’s tennis team, advancing to the Sweet 16 was never a goal.
It was an expectation.
The team has made the Sweet 16 for seven consecutive years — including the last six, with Amanda Augustus as head coach. The Bears’ regular season, like the six seasons before it, has been nothing more than an opening act for the main event.
“Going to the Sweet 16 is part of the culture on our team,” Augustus said.
On Friday, No. 8 Cal will face No. 9 Alabama, whose team made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.
For the Bears, the question is still the same as it has been all season: Can they go all the way and deliver Cal its first NCAA championship?
It is not out of the question. As a No. 8 seed, Cal advanced to the title match in 2008 and again in 2009 as the No. 9 seed. Ever since those impressive seasons — Augustus’ first two years as the coach — the Bears have been unable to return to the finals.
As the seeding indicates, the Bears will be the favorite in their matchup against the Crimson Tide. Alabama does not have a singles player on its roster ranked in the top 25, while Cal has both No. 5 Zsofi Susanyi and No. 8 Anett Schutting in the top 10.
The Crimson Tide will be the second SEC opponent that the Bears will play in a row and the second team from the state of Alabama. The Cal squad swept Auburn, 4-0, last Saturday at the Hellman Tennis Complex in Berkeley.
If Cal bests the Crimson Tide (21-5) in Urbana, Ill., on Friday, its path will become much more daunting. The Bears will likely have to face top-seeded Florida on Sunday, should they make it to the Elite 8.
The good news for Cal is that the team has been producing its best tennis now than it has been all season. The Bears (18-5) are riding on an eight-match win streak and have brought home 13 victories in their last 14 dual matches.
“If we’re not peaking now, I don’t know,” Augustus said after the Auburn match. “And it seems as some of our health issues are at a place where we can handle them.”
As late as it is in the season, the Bears are healthiest they have ever been. Cal’s top player, fifth-ranked Susanyi, has been in and out of the lineup with a hip flexor injury. Meanwhile, freshman Klara Fabikova, who plays on the No. 2 court in singles and doubles, was hampered early in the season, along with senior Annie Goransson.
All those players were on the court last weekend and appeared to be at full strength.
“I felt good to be back on the court,” Susanyi said. “I feel like I’m 100 percent, and I’m so excited to play.”
The Bears are ready. As they’ve known all along, their dedication and effort all season have been leading up to this weekend.
“We’ll work hard and prepare as we have all season,” Augustus said. “Now it’s just who wants it more.”
Riley McAtee covers women’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected]