Dec. 8, 2003
A year ago, the Notre Dame women’s tennis team entered the season facing the challenge of replacing its top three players from the previous year in addition to featuring a roster with five rookies. The Irish responded by winning their fifth BIG EAST championship, gaining a berth in the NCAA tournament for the 10th time in 11 years, and finishing the season ranked 21st nationally.
Heading into the 2003-04 season, Notre Dame head coach Jay Louderback welcomes back six of his top seven players from last year’s team, setting the stage to continue the tradition of excellence established in the 15 years since his arrival at the University.
“I think the experience we gained last year – because we had a lot of young players in the lineup – is going to help us this year,” says Louderback.
The two student-athletes who will be relied upon most to ensure that past experience translates into present success will be the team’s co-captains, seniors Caylan Leslie and Alicia Salas. This marks the first time since 1986-87 that two players will share the captain’s mantle.
Alicia Salas was named to the BIG EAST Championship all-tournament team in both singles and doubles.
“Hopefully our younger players will listen to them because they can really help them a lot,” says Louderback of his leaders. “They have followed different paths to get to where they are, but they have both always been positive. Caylan has been one of our best players since she arrived, but she missed a year with an injury, fought her way back, had to go through all the rehab, and then made the (NCAA singles) tournament last year. Alicia didn’t play in our lineup as a freshman, but she worked hard and, as a junior, she played Nos. 1 and 2 and made the (NCAA singles) tournament. They’ve earned the right to be where they are and to have some say in what is going on.”
Leslie and Salas played the top two singles positions for the Irish last year and figure to fill those spots again.
“Neither Caylan nor Alicia had ever played that high before, so we didn’t know how strong we would be at the top of our lineup last year. Both, however, responded with great years,” says Louderback. “They both made the NCAA (singles) tournament and were strong all year at Nos. 1 and 2. That is going to help us this year since we have them back and also have a lot of depth.”
Leslie’s performance in 2003 was nothing short of spectacular, considering the circumstances surrounding it. After undergoing shoulder surgery, she returned after a 14-month layoff and became one of the most dangerous players in the nation. Leslie was 9-5 at No. 1 singles and was the No. 2 player in the Midwest Region, registering nine spring wins over ranked opponents. This season, she is 26th in the preseason national singles listing.
“Caylan had a great season last year,” says Louderback. “We’ve continued to work on her being aggressive. That’s something she needs to keep working on because she can hit big groundstrokes and be on the offensive, but if she lets people off the hook, it kills her. She has to continue to keep being aggressive and coming in when she can.”
Salas made the jump from No. 4 to the top two positions in 2003, posting 24 singles wins and peaking as the 65th-ranked singles player in college tennis. Heading into her final season, she holds a stellar 71-25 (.740) career singles mark, including 40-13 (.755) in dual matches.
“Alicia just needs to keep playing like she has been,” says Louderback. “She has to keep coming in more often, but she now really has an all-around game. She can do everything. That’s why she has gotten a lot better. She has come a long way since she arrived here.”
Sarah Jane Connelly’s penchant for coming back to win matches – as evidenced by her nine wins when dropping the first set a year ago – will again be an asset for the Irish.
Joining the co-captains as a battle-tested veteran on this year’s team is junior Sarah Jane Connelly, who built a reputation as a gritty competitor who was as tough an out as any player in college tennis in ’03. Connelly was Notre Dame’s most consistent singles winner, finishing 25-12 overall and 17-7 in dual matches. Her success was due, in large part, to her penchant for pulling off come-from-behind victories. In all, she rallied for wins on nine different occasions after dropping the opening set in ’02-’03.
“From the middle of the year on last year, Sarah Jane was amazing; she hardly lost a match,” says Louderback. “She is very good at coming back in matches. She was down in a lot of matches last year, but she didn’t give up. She had a number of big wins for us, including one in the BIG EAST final against Miami.”
A trio of sophomores gained a great deal of experience in 2002-03 and is expected to be more effective this year. Kristina Stastny made an immediate impact for the Irish last year. She stepped into the No. 3 singles and No. 1 doubles positions as a freshman, earning a doubles national ranking as high as 27th.
“With Kiki, we are working on getting more topspin on her groundstrokes,” says Louderback. “She wants to force the action more this year, and she’ll need to be more consistent to do that.”
Lauren Connelly, younger sister of Sarah Jane, also played regularly in both singles and doubles a year ago. She had 43 combined victories, playing mostly No. 6 singles and No. 2 doubles.
“Lauren is really good at being aggressive in tight matches because she competes really well,” says Louderback. “When it gets close, she comes in and moves forward. That’s hard to teach, and it is something she does really well. She won a lot of matches at the end of the year, and her playing last year will really help her in the future.”
Jennifer Smith was a doubles starter and also saw some time in the singles mix. She suffered a shoulder injury over the summer and will need to recover from that in order to contribute this season.
Three other returning monogram winners have made progress and also will look to challenge for playing time: senior Emily Neighbours and sophomores Liz Donohue and Kelly Nelson.
Joining the returnees are two of the top junior players in the country. Twins Catrina and Christian Thompson entered college as the No. 1 18-and-under doubles team in the nation, while both are among the top 20 singles players enrolling as freshmen this fall.
“We’re really excited to have the Thompsons joining us,” says Louderback. “They are good athletes, but they have different games. Both of them are very talented, and they are great doubles players, which will help us.”
The Thompsons are not the only newcomers to the Irish program this season. After Liz Balanis resigned from her post to pursue other interests, Louderback brought the most prolific women’s tennis player in Notre Dame history back to her alma mater. Michelle Dasso, a 2001 graduate and the only four-time All-American in school history, will serve as an assistant this season after two years playing professionally.
“Michelle is going to bring a lot of intensity,” says Louderback. “In practice and in matches, I think she is going to be really good with the players on the court. I thought Liz was the best assistant in the country last year, but we’re not going to miss a beat with Michelle.”
Louderback and Dasso will certainly have some difficult decisions to make when it comes to filling out the lineup card, a situation caused by the incredible depth on this Irish team.
“Our depth is going to be very good,” says Louderback. “It will really help us in case we have injuries or illnesses hit us throughout the year. With our depth, we just won’t miss a beat. Our fall is going to be a key as far as who makes our lineup. How everyone plays in the fall tournaments is going to be a big factor in how our lineup will be in the spring.”
In what has become a tradition, Louderback’s team will face a schedule arguably as difficult as that of anyone in college tennis. In all, the Irish will take on eight teams that finished ’03 in the national top 25 and a dozen NCAA Championship participants.
Jay Louderback has led the Irish to a national top 30 finish in each of the last 11 seasons.
“It is a tough schedule, but for us to be a top-25 team, we have to play a tough schedule,” says Louderback. “You have to beat good teams, so we just want to play the best teams. There are some years we’ve struggled a little and won only half of our matches, but we were still a top-25 team. It’s a good experience for us, especially later in the year. Our big thing is to win the BIG EAST and do well in the NCAAs. Playing a tough schedule helps put us into a position to do that.”
A defining characteristic of the team that will face that schedule, according to Louderback, is the collective experience it now boasts.
“The big thing this year is that we are a lot more experienced. Last year we had five freshmen, which was almost half of the team. But we are still very young this year, as well.”
The Irish mentor believes this talented group has an opportunity to do some special things in 2003-04.
“We want to win the BIG EAST title again,” says Louderback. “We also want to have a chance to have an impact at the NCAAs, and I think we’ll have a chance to do that, based on the talent and experience we have.”