Jan. 13, 2003
by Bo Rottenborn
The 2002-03 season for Notre Dame women’s tennis has the potential to be a breakout year for a number of young players, whose aim is to maintain the tradition of success built by head coach Jay Louderback over the last 13 seasons. The Irish return five monogram winners from last year’s team, which finished in the national top 25 for the seventh straight year.
Five players from that squad graduated a season ago after compiling an 85-33 (.720) record over their careers and advancing to the Sweet 16 on two occasions.
“Overall, it’s a big loss for us – losing five seniors,” says Louderback. “Over their careers they all did a great job for us.”
Highlighting the graduating class was a trio of standouts who provided four years of outstanding service to the program: Lindsey Green, Nina Vaughan and Becky Varnum.
The latter, who served as captain last year and was a 2001 All-American in doubles, played No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles for the ’02 Irish. Varnum, who holds the school record for doubles victories in a season, and Green finished their careers in a tie for second place on the Irish all-time list of career doubles triumphs, with 105, while also both winning over 90 career singles matches.
Green is in an elite group of four Irish players who won 200 or more combined matches (singles and doubles) during her career, while Varnum ranks second in school history in doubles dual-match wins with a 72-31 record.
Nina Vaughan also contributed to Notre Dame’s success over the last four years, winning 150 combined matches in her career. Berica Day and Michelle Hamilton, who each earned their first monograms in 2002, also will be missed.
The good news for Louderback is that five returning letterwinners and a group of five talented freshmen that rivals any he has ever recruited mean the Irish have a good chance to simply reload in 2002-03, instead of having to rebuild.
Louderback cites the season-ending shoulder injury to Caylan Leslie, who had been playing No. 2 singles in fall action, as a difficult challenge that last year’s team had to overcome. At the same time, it allowed some other younger players to get valuable experience in the lineup which they may have not otherwise gained – something that could help the Irish this season.
“We had some players that stepped up last year and played higher in the lineup than they had been before and did a good job,” says Louderback. “A couple are returning this year that did a great job. Alicia Salas had a great year at No. 4 singles and Katie Cunha stepped up and played No. 1 doubles and made it into the NCAA tournament. Sarah Jane Connelly made it through her freshman year and played some big matches and did a good job. She played under some pressure in the BIG EAST and in some big matches, and I think that’s going to help her a lot for this year.”
Cunha, one of two seniors on this year’s squad, will serve as team captain in 2002-03, which Louderback is excited about.
“In her career, she has matured a lot, and she has turned into not only a great player, but a great leader,” says Louderback of his captain. “She has looked at the captains and seniors we’ve had over the past three years and learned something from all of them. That’s something that a good leader does – learns from who has gone before her – and that’s something she’s really done well.”
Cunha will be expected to play at the top of the Irish doubles lineup and in the middle of the singles slate after playing mostly No. 5 singles and ending the year at No. 1 doubles. The Mercer Island, Wash. native led the team in clinching victories in both singles and doubles a year ago and earned an invitation, along with Green, into the NCAA Doubles Championship.
“She played well last year, but I think she’ll have a great senior year just because she is motivated to do well,” says Louderback. “At the end of the season last year, she played really well in singles, and she played great doubles all year long. She could be a key for us this year if she plays well, especially in singles.”
Alicia Salas was the most consistent winner for the Irish in 2001-02, turning in one of the best seasons in school history. As a sophomore, she tied the school record for dual-match singles wins in a season, posting a 24-3 mark while playing mostly at No. 4 singles. Salas led the Irish in both singles and doubles victories, walking off the court a winner on 57 occasions and earning team MVP honors. Overall, Salas was 31-6 in singles and won 27 of her final 30 matches. Ranked 86th in the national singles rankings entering fall play, Salas enters her junior season with a 47-10 (.825) career singles record, which stands second on the Irish women’s tennis career winning percentage list.
“Alicia moved up from No. 8 to No. 4 on our team last season and had an unbelievable year,” says Louderback. “We’re looking for her to step higher than No. 4 this year and play near the top of our lineup. She’s got the ability to do it, but she will have to make a big jump, just like she did last year.”
Fellow junior Leslie also is expected to play near the top of the Irish singles lineup in 2002-03. After an outstanding freshman campaign, Leslie suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last fall, which caused her to miss the entire spring season. Though she will see limited action in the fall, Leslie is expected to be one of the keys to Notre Dame’s attack in the spring if she is able to regain the form that allowed her to win 30 singles matches in her first year of collegiate tennis.
“Caylan is going to be a key for us if we can get her back and healthy,” says Louderback. “She can play at the top of our lineup, and we’re going to need her with so many freshman this year. We’re going to need someone who’s played high. A big key for us is to get her back”
Last year, Sarah Jane Connelly gained valuable experience in her first season of collegiate tennis, playing mostly at No. 6 singles and No. 3 doubles. She was 22-15 in singles and was 17-11 in doubles dual-match action, matching the second-highest total ever by an Irish freshman. Connelly will be looked upon to move up in the lineup and produce again in 2002-03.
“Sarah Jane got a lot of experience last year,” says Louderback. “She played singles and doubles all year and was a little bit up and down, but she was a freshman. She is capable of playing anywhere in our lineup for singles and is a very good doubles player.”
Junior Emily Neighbours will look to move into the lineup in 2002-03 after struggling through two injury-plagued seasons. She became healthy enough last year to earn her first monogram, seeing limited action in both singles and doubles in the dual-match season.
“Unfortunately, Emily has had a habit of getting hurt or sick right when she is getting going,” says Louderback. “The key for her is to stay healthy. She was playing real well at the end of last year. As long as she stays healthy, she’ll have a chance to play because she’s very talented.”
Also returning to the fold for Notre Dame is senior Maggie Donohue, who saw limited action last season in her first year with the Irish. Donohue played for Iowa in the fall of her freshman year before transferring to Notre Dame her sophomore season.
“Maggie didn’t play in the lineup last year, but she was very good in practice for our players,” says Louderback. “She gets a lot of balls back and works very hard. She’s put in extra time. The amount of time she puts in and the work she puts in really helps everybody else to see how hard she’s working.”
In addition to the six returning players, Louderback welcomes a freshman class he feels may be the best he has ever recruited.
“We’re excited about this class,” said the 14th-year Irish coach. “It is a great class in both singles and doubles. I think all of them are going to have a shot at playing immediately for us. They are going to have an opportunity to come in and make a big impact on our program.”
Jennifer Smith, who did not participate in prep tennis, was ranked 26th in the country in the 18-and-under division and was 10th nationally among 2002 graduates. She has extensive experience in national and international tournaments, including the 1999 World Youth Cup. Smith won the doubles title at the 2000 National Hard Court Championships.
“Jennifer Smith brings a lot of athleticism,” says Louderback. “She is a good athlete and has a very good all-around game. Once she plays a lot of college matches, she is going to be good. She is going to have an opportunity to play high for us.”
Kristina Stastny came to Notre Dame after becoming the first player in history to win four Missouri state championships in singles. Stastny was ranked 21st in the 18s and is the eighth-ranked enrolling freshman this fall. She also had success in doubles, capturing titles at the 1999 and 2001 National Clay Courts and the ’01 National Indoors.
“Kristina is a great competitor,” says Louderback. “She comes from a great athletic family and competes maybe as well as any player we’ve had here. We think she has the chance to develop into a great player, and she’s a very good player right now. She has strong groundstrokes, covers the court very well and plays smart tennis, while still being a bit of a retriever. She has started recently to become a little more aggressive and, in college, I think she will be able to be very aggressive.”
Lauren Connelly joins her sister on the Irish squad this season. She was ranked 58th nationally in singles. She won four team and four individual Oklahoma state titles and finished her prep career 76-0. Connelly, ranked 25th among college freshman in the United States, also has a National Indoors title in doubles to her credit.
“Lauren Connelly is a solid singles player and a great doubles player,” says Louderback. “She was one of the top junior doubles players in the country. She makes very few errors and is a smart player.”
The Connellys are not the only sister combination on the Irish team, as Liz Donohue joins her sister, Maggie, as part of this year’s freshman class. The younger Donohue won five South Dakota state championships and posted a 125-1 high school record.
“Liz is a grinder,” says Louderback. “She gets a lot of balls back. She is a very good athlete and just hasn’t had a lot of exposure, being from South Dakota. There are a few things she’s going to have to work on. But she’s a good enough athlete that down the road she may have a chance to play.”
Kelly Nelson was ranked in the nation’s top 20 in singles and top 10 in doubles during her career in junior tennis. She reached the semifinals of the 2002 Easter Bowl in doubles.
“Kelly is going to have a shot at both singles and doubles,” says Louderback. “She’s another grinder who gets a lot of balls back. She’s played a lot of good players in Florida. If she’s not in our lineup, she’ll be great in practice cause she’s going to make our team work hard.”
The Irish again face a difficult schedule in 2002-03. In dual-match play, they will take on 15 teams that participated in the NCAA tournament a season ago, including eight squads that advanced to the round of 16. Notre Dame’s schedule includes a midseason stretch of five straight matches against teams that reached the Sweet 16 or beyond in 2002: vs. Duke, at national semifinalist Tennessee, at Kentucky, vs. quarterfinalist Wake Forest and vs. Texas. The Irish also will travel to round-of-16 participants Northwestern and Arizona State, while hosting North Carolina, which advanced to the final eight a year ago. The Irish hope to qualify for the USTA/ITA National Team Indoor Championships for the 10th consecutive season.
“The big thing is that we’re so young,” says Louderback of his team. “It could be interesting. It will be a fun year because we have so many freshman-five of them. I think the key for us is going to be the fall, getting everybody together, with all these freshman, working on doubles combinations, gaining experience. I think by the end of the year we’ll be a very good team.”