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Women's Tennis Transforms Weaknesses into Strenghts

September 17, 1998

Sometimes weaknesses can be transformed into strengths. For Notre Dame women’s tennis coach Jay Louderback, this is exactly the case with his 1998-99 team. Coming off a year which saw them lose matches at the bottom of their lineup, the Irish will field their deepest team ever.

“The strength of our team this year is going to be our depth,” says Louderback. “We had a lot of good wins in the top three singles spots last year but our depth hurt us a little. With five of our top seven returning and a great freshman class, our depth is going to be our strength.”

Seniors Jennifer Hall and Marisa Velasco, junior Kelly Zalinski and sophomore Michelle Dasso combined for over 80 dual-match singles wins, while sophomore Kim Guy came on strong at the end of the year. Add to this strong nucleus a freshman class which includes nationally-ranked juniors, and Louderback’s excitement is obvious.

“On paper this is probably the best team we’ve had,” says Louderback, who will coach his 10th Irish squad this year.

While the outcome of tight matches a year ago hinged on the performance of the bottom of the lineup, the trio of seniors Hall and Velasco and sophomore Dasso will be pivotal to Notre Dame’s success this year.

“The top of our lineup is going to be a real key as to how far we can go nationally,” says Louderback. “We’ll be very competitive with any team in the country from four through six in the singles lineup. Our being able to win a lot of matches at one through three against top 10 teams will determine how high we can finish.”

Headlining this group is Hall (Oklahoma City, Okla.), a ’98 All-American who is on pace to become Notre Dame’s all-time leader in singles wins and combined singles and doubles wins. She has compiled an 87-47 singles record and 64-36 doubles record and has anchored the No. 1 singles spot in Irish lineup in her first three years.

A three-time NCAA singles participant and two-time NCAA doubles participant, Hall teamed with Tiffany Gates to advance to the quarterfinals of the ’98 NCAA doubles championship to earn her second All-America honor, adding to her singles All-America accolades as a freshman. Louderback looks for Hall, with her strong lefty groundstrokes and serve, to finish her Notre Dame career with her best year yet.

“Jennifer finished with a lot of close losses at the end last year and was actually playing better tennis at the end, but just struggled to win tight matches,” says Louderback. “She was up and down last year, but she’ll come back and have a great senior year. Jennifer worked hard over the summer, and during the fall season it will be very important for her to play a lot of matches.”

Velasco (Chula Vista, Calif.) returns after a junior year in which she was one of the best No. 3 singles players in the country, with a 19-4 record and a final ranking of 73. She enters 1998 with a preseason ranking of No. 54. Her intense competitiveness and fiery play on the court has led to a 79-29 career singles record, including a 5-1 record in NCAA team competition.

“The fall season will be key for Marisa because she didn’t play in summer tournaments,” says Louderback. “She needs to play a lot of good matches in the fall to prepare for a great senior campaign which we expect from her.”

The Irish, relying on major contributions from the sophomore and freshman classes, will look to Hall and Velasco for leadership as the team’s seniors.

“Jennifer and Marisa both have been around a long time and worked really hard to get where they are,” says Louderback. “In addition to their tennis ability, they will be needed to be leaders for all of our young players.”

With 64 singles wins in just two seasons, Zalinski (Greer, S.C.) has been a force for the Irish at No. 5 singles with her all-court game. She has recorded numerous wins over Nos. 1 and 2 singles players and earned a singles ranking as high as 81 during last season. After compiling a 17-6 dual-match record at No. 3 doubles a year ago, Zalinski will bring her doubles experience and ability to an untested doubles lineup.

“Kelly had a great year last year and has done really well for us,” says Louderback. “She has recovered from her shoulder problems and now needs to take her game to the next level. We will count on her in the next couple of years to play high in our lineup and play like she has in the past. Kelly has to be a little more consistent and, with her great positive attitude and work ethic, she’ll be there.”

Junior Sarah Scaringe (Marietta, Ga.) missed all of last year with a shoulder injury but has recovered well and is ready to bring her strong left-handed serve back to the courts for the Irish.

“Sarah worked hard over the summer and played a lot of tournaments to come back from shoulder surgery,” says Louderback. “She needs to catch up from missing a year and started to do that this summer. Sarah’s always worked hard and will have a shot to help in our singles and doubles lineup.”

Dasso (Long Grove, Ill.) has little room for improvement after turning in one of the best freshman seasons in Irish history. She burst into collegiate tennis and into the Irish record books with her 40-8 singles record and 24-13 doubles record, the most singles and combined singles and doubles wins in a season in Notre Dame history. Dasso capped off a 16-2 fall season by winning the Midwest Regional Rolex singles title.

While being ranked as high as 16 during the season, Dasso won her first 20 singles dual matches and finished 14-6 against ranked opponents on her way to an NCAA singles bid. Louderback will look to Dasso, a preseason 17th-ranked player this year, and her strong backcourt game and intense competitiveness to spark the Irish lineup once again.

“Michelle had such an unbelievable year freshman year, but usually sophomore year is the toughest year,” says Louderback. “Everyone she played is going to be ready for her and instead of being the underdog in the matches and trying to beat an old player, Michelle is going to be the one with the target on her back. She is such a good competitor that she should be able to handle it. Michelle has improved in keeping her composure in matches and has a chance to do a lot here.”

Kim Guy (Portola Valley, Calif.) worked hard to edge her way into the singles lineup at the end of the year last spring and looks to build on the momentum after winning two matches in the NCAA regional. Her first match in the singles lineup came at 10th-ranked Wake Forest, and she responded with a straight-sets win.

“Kim made a huge jump last year,” says Louderback. “She has all the shots with big groundstrokes, a very good serve and a great return of serve and can volley well. Kim needed to bring consistency to her game, and that has come with all of her hard work and all of the tournaments she played last summer.”

Becky Varnum (Colorado Springs, Colo.) is the highest-ranked of the Irish freshmen and comes to Notre Dame after winning a pair of Intercollegiate Tennis Association summer tournaments. She finished an incredible high school career with four state titles and a 68-0 record. With the top ranking in the Intermountain Section, Varnum held a national ranking of 18 in the girls 18s age group.

“Becky had an incredible summer and will be a big factor on the team,” says Louderback. “She is already starting to hit a bigger ball and attacking more than she did in the juniors. Becky will have a good chance of playing and helping us in the middle of the lineup.”

Freshmen Lindsey Green (El Cajon, Calif.) and Nina Vaughan (Corona del Mar, Calif.) also should contribute right away for the Irish. Green starred at Valhalla High School and finished third at the Southern California Sectionals in 1998. Vaughan was a four-year letterwinner at Corona del Mar High School where she led her team to the CIF title and Southern California sectionals and also advanced to the semifinals of the CIF individual tournament twice in her career.

“Nina and Lindsey are very talented and hard workers, but they need a lot of experience which they will get by playing a lot of big matches in the fall,” says Louderback. “They both hit a big ball and will develop into very good indoor players. Working out indoors at the Eck Tennis Pavilion will be a big factor. They will help us out a lot.”

Freshman Berica Day (San Antonio, Texas), who has qualified for the girls 18s national championship, could also contribute.

“Berica needs to work on some technical aspects of her game and gain a lot of match experience,” says Louderback. “She is a good athlete and will contribute in the future once she does.”

The Irish will punctuate another difficult schedule by welcoming back four of the 16 teams that played in the NCAA team championship last year at Notre Dame. Runner-up Duke, BYU, William & Mary and Wake Forest all make trips to Notre Dame. The Irish also will play the slate of regional teams which they finished 10-0 against last year.

“We have a very tough schedule and a great home schedule in particular,” says Louderback. “The really tough home matches will help us in the long run. Our depth should show with a schedule like ours.”

A change in the NCAA championship will send every NCAA participant to one of 16 first- and second-round regional sites for the first time. Automatic bids will be awarded to conference champions for the first time, and the Irish will be looking for the BIG EAST bid as they gun for their third BIG EAST championship in four years.

“All of the teams will be playing in a regional which will be good because no one gets a free ride into the final 16 anymore,” says Louderback. “Our goal is to win the BIG EAST and be the top seed in our region to get a chance to serve as host of the regional which will be a big advantage.”