They say to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. In college sports, you meet those enemies in your conference the most, getting to really understand the ins and outs of their game over the course of the season.
If there is any merit to the old adage, it’s good news for No. 16 Cal (12-7, 6-4) women’s tennis, as it will battle conference rival No. 15 USC (17-6, 7-3) for the third time this spring to begin the Pac-12 Tournament this Thursday in Ojai, California.
With its worse conference record, Cal is slated as the fifth seed, while USC received the fourth seed.
The Bears have split the season series so far with the Trojans, winning in earlier nonconference play at home but dropping the official Pac-12 match on the road.
Half of USC’s six losses this year came in its last four matches, so Cal may be catching it at a vulnerable time. One of those defeats came at the hands of then-No. 8 Pepperdine, whom Cal upset Feb. 16 to officially come onto the scene as an elite team.
The Bears have the edge in singles, as both No. 41 Julia Rosenqvist and No. 47 Olivia Hauger are ranked before any Trojan.
“We want to just keep building. We’re at the point in the season where a couple little things need to be adjusted, and we’ll get real specific in practice,” said Cal head coach Amanda Augustus. “We’ll pinpoint those exact returns that we missed and work on those to feel good down in Ojai.”
Cal ran into trouble in its conference match against USC when each of the top three singles courts lost in either upsets or winnable matches.
Then-No. 30 Rosenqvist was upset by then-No. 49 Salma Ewing, while Hauger could not take care of USC’s unranked Rianna Valdes.
In doubles, however, USC has the second-ranked pair in the country in Valdes and Angela Kulikov. The duo has won against formidable opponents recently such as Washington’s Stacey Fung/Nika Zupancic and Pepperdine’s Anastasia Iamachkine/Jessica Failla.
Even still, barring a collapse similar to their conference meeting, this is a match that the Bears should be able to handle and could even be favored to come out on top, even as the lower seed.
Should that happen, Cal will likely face top-seeded Stanford (No. 5-ranked team in the nation) in the quarterfinals Friday. This would allow the Bears another shot at the Cardinal and to avenge their 6-1 loss last weekend in their regular-season finale.
“Our goal is to be a top-eight seed come the tournament,” Augustus said. I think we’d have to have a real good Ojai to do that, but I think we’re looking good to host the first couple rounds. Those are annual goals of our program.”
Even without a win against the Trojans, the Bears would likely be given the privilege to host in early NCAAs. A date with Stanford in the Pac-12 quarterfinals after defeating USC, however, is well within Cal’s capabilities and is in line with its potential as a top unit.
Dev Navani covers women’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].