No. 10 Cal women’s tennis faces Stanford in Big Slam with Pac-12 title on line

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For a team on the cusp of an undefeated conference season, a Pac-12 title and an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, the Cal women’s tennis team sure doesn’t look like an elite squad.

The Bears have just two singles players ranked in the top 25 — No. 23 Anett Schutting and No. 21 Zsofi Susanyi. And neither of those two is playing on the Bears’ No. 1 court. That honor belongs to freshman Denise Starr, who, despite playing in the top spot for the entirety of Cal’s current 11-match win streak, hasn’t even cracked the top 30.

It would make sense, then, that this group of apparent scrubs would have trouble competing in one of the most competitive conferences in the country. The Pac-12 features six players in the top 20, none of whom are from Cal. Two teams in the Pac-12 rank in the top five in the nation, but the Bears can’t even break into the single digits. Yet, there the No. 10 Bears (17-4, 9-0) sit, with a perfect conference record and one massive upset over UCLA, which is now considered the second-best team in the country.

The ITA ranked Cal as high as No. 6 after the team beat those vaunted Bruins, but then the Bears had the gall to drop one singles match to Washington State on Saturday before sweeping Oregon the next day. For that slip-up, Cal fell six spots to its current ranking.

“I think it will all work itself out,” head coach Amanda Augustus said. “But yeah, it was a bummer.”

Cal responded by drubbing Sacramento State in a 7-0 shutout Thursday.

When the Bears face off with No. 5 Stanford (16-1, 8-1) at noon Saturday in the regular-season finale, they will have a chance to not only win the Pac-12 crown for the first time since 1987 but also to prove they belong in the top tier of tennis teams across the country. These are almost entirely uncharted waters for the Bears — Cal hasn’t won in Palo Alto since 1999, the last season that Augustus played for Cal before she graduated.

The Cardinal topped the Bears, 5-2, in a nonconference matchup March 8, which prompted Augustus to shake up her doubles and singles lineups. Cal hasn’t lost a match since.

Beating Stanford will take everything the Bears have. They need Starr to come through with her complete, “Jana Juricova-like” game, as Augustus puts it. They need the oft-injured Susanyi to stay healthy, as she has all season. They need Schutting to continue to find success with her aggressive play. But mostly, they need Lynn Chi, Klara Fabikova and Maegan Manasse — their players on the bottom three courts — to come through like they have all season. After all, the strength of this team isn’t in its top courts, it’s in its unparalleled depth.

“That’s the big difference between this year’s group and last year’s group,” Augustus said. “We’re a lot deeper and a lot healthier.”

Contact Riley McAtee at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riley_mcatee