The Cal women’s tennis team may have won the Pac-12 championship and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, but a couple of months ago, this team was a shell of what it is now. A combination of smart coaching and improved play led to a drastic turnaround in head coach Amanda Augustus’ squad.
The Bears (20-5, 10-0) got off to a strong start after a somewhat disappointing fall season without any deep ITA National Tournament runs or individual ITA regional titles. Cal started by crushing Santa Clara, Washington and USF — surrendering no games in a three match stretch. But the Bears were expected to beat the mediocre teams they played to start the spring season. With Zsofi Susanyi struggling, there was still the question of whether Cal could compete against the top teams in the nation.
The answer to that question came when the Bears competed in the prestigious ITA National Team Indoor Championships. In a field of the best teams in the nation, Cal was able to advance all the way to the semifinals, where it fell to Duke, 4-2. But the then-No. 8 Bears were still able to beat the then-No. 13 Clemson, 4-2, in the first round. Then, in the second round, with a trip to the semis on the line, Maegan Manasse won on court six in what Augustus called a “last-man-standing match” to narrowly upset then-No. 4 Georgia, 4-3.
Coming off of a great ITA Indoors run, it appeared as if Cal was among the elite teams in the nation. But in a road trip to southern California, the Bears lost a heartbreaker to UCLA, 4-3, despite Anett Schutting earning the best win of her career against then-No. 2 Robin Anderson in a tiebreaker third set. After the loss, USC proceeded to rout Cal, 6-1, in one of its worst losses of the season.
The three-match losing streak ended when the Bears played a subpar San Diego State, but the score was not indicative of the match. Despite the 5-2 margin, Cal had to work for every point after falling behind early in the match. The Bears’ struggles only continued as they lost to Stanford in their next match, 5-2.
At this point in the season, Augustus’ team was falling apart. Her team was playing from behind, starting singles play after conceding the doubles point in nearly every match. Augustus experimented often with the singles lineup but had not found an option she liked. With conference play starting, the Bears looked like they were in serious trouble.
In her team’s first conference match against Washington, Augustus elected to play Schutting with Lynn Chi on court one doubles and Manasse with Denise Starr on court two. Despite the latter pairing’s similar style of play, the duo proceeded to win their match, 8-3, while Schutting and Chi won, 8-4. Additionally, Augustus moved Starr to court one singles and Schutting to court two to better balance the singles roster. This singles and doubles lineup proceeded to go an undefeated 10-0 in Pac-12 play, sweeping seven opponents while conceding the doubles point only once to a strong UCLA team.
With so much success in conference play, the Bears would have to play Stanford for the Pac-12 Championship. With a title on the line, Cal proceeded to blow Stanford out of the water, 6-1, with the Cardinal’s only point coming on Kristie Ahn’s court-one victory against Starr.
Cal entered the NCAA Tournament with great expectations after claiming its first Pac-12 title since 1987 and going undefeated in conference play. After breezing through the first two rounds, the Bears matched up against Stanford in the round of 16. But events didn’t transpire the same as last time, as Stanford narrowly beat Cal in a nail-biter, 4-3, to end the Bears’ season.
This season can only be considered a success for Augustus’ squad. But with so many great building blocks for the future evidenced in the play of freshmen Manasse and Starr along with sophomore Chi, expect the Bears to make a deeper run into the NCAAs next season.
Winston Cho covers women’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected]