by Bo Rottenborn
A year after one of the most successful seasons in Irish women’s tennis history, the 2001-02 squad looks to continue the program’s winning ways. Notre Dame returns six of their top eight players from last year’s team, which was ranked as high as fifth in the nation – the highest-ever ranking by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association in school history.
“Last year we played well all year long, which is a very important thing,” says 13th-year head coach Jay Louderback. “Our record was good and we had some big wins. I think the experience we have coming back this year – even though we are losing two of our top six players – will make it so we can be just as good.”
Those two players, Michelle Dasso and Kimberly Guy, were integral to last year’s team, which finished 25-5 and advanced to the NCAA round of 16 for the second consecutive season. Dasso completed her career as the school’s all-time leader in career singles (140), doubles (109) and combined victories (249) and was the first player in school history to advance to the NCAA Division I singles championship semifinals. The four-time all-american was the first Irish player to be named ITA national senior player of the year after a season in which she finished ranked 5th in the country among singles players and, along with Becky Varnum, was 9th nationally in doubles. Guy was an important contributor as well, playing regularly in both the singles and doubles lineups and registering 58 combined victories a year ago.
Headlining the returning players is Varnum, who will serve as the team captain after playing the past two seasons at No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles. Varnum enters her senior year as one of the most successful doubles players in school history after earning all-American honors with Dasso a season ago. In three seasons, she has won 82 doubles matches and needs 27 wins this year to reach the school record set by Dasso last year. Last year, the Colorado Springs native broke the second-longest-standing record in the Irish recordbook by winning 37 doubles matches, including 21 in a row. Her 2000-01 season shattered the previous mark of 32 wins by Pam Fischette in 1981. She and Dasso were ranked as high as fifth and finished in the top 20 nationally, while qualifying for the NCAA doubles championships in each of the past two seasons. She and fellow senior Lindsey Green are ranked 23rd in the country in the preseason doubles rankings.
As a singles player, Varnum is ranked 48th nationally in the preseason after going 20-4 in dual matches a year ago and finishing the season by winning 17 of her final 19 matches. She was ranked seventh in the region last year and had a team-high eight clinching wins.
“Becky had a great year with Dasso in doubles and she had a really good year in singles too,” says Louderback. “She stepped up for us, playing No. 2 all year and did a great job. This year, she will be one of the ones at the top of our lineup, where she has a lot of experience. She is very fast and plays an all-around game.”
Senior Nina Vaughan is also expected to play near the top of the lineup after competing at No. 3 singles last season. Vaughan has been a key contributor to the Irish over the past two seasons, notching at least 20 dual singles wins in each of the last two years, including a team-high 21 a year ago. Vaughan is ranked 61st nationally in singles in the ITA’s preseason rankings. She also won 27 doubles matches a season ago, mostly at No. 3 doubles with Green.
“Through her first three years, Nina has improved every year,” says Louderback. “She just continues to move up in the lineup and we expect her to do that again this season.”
“She plays a big game. She hits the ball very hard and is tough to beat, especially indoors. One thing that has helped her is she has started to become more aggressive about coming into the net. Also, her speed is improved, which should make a big difference in her game.”
After an outstanding freshman campaign, Caylan Leslie will also be looked upon to play high in the Irish lineup in 2001-02. Leslie started her college career with six consecutive victories and eventually posted a 30-12 singles mark, mostly at No. 4. She was 13-3 in limited doubles action, including 6-0 in dual matches.
“She worked very hard over the summer and throughout last year,” says Louderback. “Her big thing was getting college experience, which she did.”
“Caylan plays a pretty good all-around game. She has great angles, she is able to get the ball really wide to open the court up. She is going to have the opportunity to play high this year and before her career is over, she has a shot at playing No. 1 for us.”
Senior Lindsey Green has been a consistent contributor over her first three years in the Irish lineup and will be an important factor again this year. Green has registered 27 doubles wins and at least 22 singles wins in each of her first three seasons. Another 27-win season in doubles would match Dasso’s record for career doubles victories. Last season, Green played mostly No. 5 singles and No. 3 doubles. She was 19-5 in dual singles matches last year.
“Lindsey played No. 5 last year and is going to have an opportunity to step up and maybe play a little higher this year,” says Louderback.
“She had a great win against Florida (in the NCAA round of 16) and she had some other really good wins. Lindsey hits the ball very hard and has a big serve, which is one of her weapons. She did a great job in doubles last year.”
Also returning to the Irish lineup will be junior Katie Cunha, who played No. 2 doubles last season with Guy and saw some singles action, as well. After two seasons, Cunha has registered 51 doubles victories, the majority of them with Guy as her partner. As a freshman, she posted a 15-3 mark in dual singles matches and was 7-2 last year.
“Katie was playing very well in singles at the end of last year,” says Louderback. “It was really a shame she wasn’t in the lineup. Our problem last year – which is a good problem to have – was we were very deep.”
“She has a big serve and a great slice backhand. She volleys well and attacks and is consistent off the ground. She is one we are counting on to be very solid in our singles lineup and also to be one of our top doubles players.”
Sophomore Alicia Salas also figures to challenge for a spot in the dual-match lineup. Salas had an exceptional fall last year as a freshman and finished 16-4 overall in singles. She is a talented and versatile player who is very athletic on the court.
“Alicia was just out of the lineup last year, but was very close,” says Louderback.
“As a freshman, she worked hard on some things, like getting a little more pace on the ball. She is very consistent, she doesn’t make many errors. She is going to be fighting for the singles and doubles lineup. She’ll have a good shot at both and, in the next two years, we feel she’ll be helping a lot.”
Another sophomore, Emily Neighbours, will also vie for playing time. She battled injuries last season, but still posted an impressive 11-1 singles record.
“We feel Emily will be helping us a lot over the next couple years,” says Louderback.
“She missed a lot of last year with injuries. She hits a big ball and she strikes the ball very well. She just needs to get a little more consistent, but the more balls she is hitting in practice, the more consistent she is getting. She is one we are looking to help a lot in the future.”
Seniors Michelle Hamilton and Berica Day will provide depth to the squad.
“Michelle has been a great addition to the team since she came in and started playing as a sophomore,” says Louderback. “She has made huge improvements in the last two years. Her doubles is very good. If she has the chance to step in and play doubles for us, we would be fine. She has worked real hard at having the opportunity to play and her serve has improved a lot.”
“Berica is coming off an ACL surgery so her fall is going to be very limited, but she will be back at full speed in the spring,” says Louderback.
The Irish will also be helped by the addition of freshman Sarah Jane Connelly. She comes to Notre Dame after a standout career in high school and junior competition. Connelly was ranked 31st in singles and fourth in doubles in the United States Tennis Association national 18s rankings. She won the 1998 USTA National Indoor doubles title. Connelly led Bishop McGuiness High School to three Oklahoma state titles and she also captured three state singles titles.
“She is a great addition,” says Louderback.
“She works very hard and is a very good doubles player. She will probably step in and play doubles immediately for us and make a big difference in our lineup. She is also going to be battling to make our singles lineup. She plays a pretty big game, but is also very consistent. I think she has a chance to develop into a player that plays very high for us.”
The Irish again face a difficult schedule in 2001-02. In dual-match play, they will take on 15 teams that participated in the NCAA tournament a season ago, including six squads that advanced to the round of 16. Eleven of the 14 home matches for Notre Dame will be against 2001 NCAA tournament teams, as will seven of the final eight matches overall. That stretch includes road showdowns with round-of-16 participants Wake Forest and Texas, as well as Duke, which was ranked third in the nation at the end of last season. The final home matches of the regular season feature regional rival Northwestern and BIG EAST foe Miami. The Irish will also compete in the USTA/ITA National Team Indoor Championships for the ninth consecutive season.
“The thing we did differently with our schedule this year than we have in the past is our April is a lot tougher,” says Louderback. “In the past, we have had our tough matches early in the year, playing them in February and early March. We haven’t played many top 15 teams at the end of the season. This year we finish up with probably the toughest April we’ve ever had. I’m looking forward to the chance to play real good teams at the end.”
“Every year, our goals are nearly the same,” says Louderback. “We want to defend the BIG EAST title. Other than that, we want to get ourselves in a position to be playing well at the end of the year and do well when the NCAAs come around.”