Outlook for 1997 Women's Tennis Team
The way USC women's tennis coach Richard Gallien sees it, Florida and Stanford are expected to be the best 2 women's tennis teams in the country in 1997. But he also believes that the Women of Troy could join them by the end of the season.
The Women of Troy are ranked No. 15 in the national preseason coaches' poll, but Gallien -- given a talented group of returning players and a few key additions -- feels that it will only be a matter of time before USC rises in the polls.
"We were ranked No. 18 in last year's final poll and I thought that was a bit low considering that we won the Western Regional and made the round of 16," said Gallien, who enters his second year in charge of the Women of Troy. "This year we're in the preseason Top 15, so we've moved up a bit. Realistically, though, we should be in the Top 10, and hopefully by the end of the year we've improved enough to where we can take a crack at Florida and Stanford.
"From No. 3 on, it's a free-for-all. Our trick is to make the jump from 15 to the Top 5. I know we're that good, and once the girls start to believe that, we have a chance."
Gallien believes that the way his players evolve as a team will be an important factor as USC tries to improve upon last year's No. 18 ranking, 16-9 record (4-6 in the Pacific-10 Conference Southern Division for fourth place) and first-round appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
" 'Tennis team' is almost an oxymoron," said Gallien, who is assisted by Craig Johnson. "It's an adjustment for the athletes because they're used to playing as individuals. Suddenly they're on a team where they have to get along because of this common bond. Our ability as coaches to get them to compete for each other and with each other is as important as any role that we play.
"I think the chemistry this year is better than it was last year. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we'll be very tight. I like our team even though we're young. It's possible we could have 2 freshmen, 3 sophomores and a junior in our lineup. That's a very young team."
It was a team made younger with the losses of seniors Suzie Italiano and Ayisha Zaman to graduation. Italiano played No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles, earning 2-time doubles All-American honors with Nicole London in 1996 and Petra Schmitt in 1994. Zaman played No. 6 singles and No. 3 doubles last season.
Gallien has 4 veterans lined up to try to replace Italiano at the No. 1 singles spot: --Karolina Baklarova, a sophomore from the Czech Republic, had a strong ending to her 1996 season, finishing second at the Pac-10 Tournament after playing No. 4 singles for most of the year. Her overall record of 21-7 was the best on the team. She also played No. 3 doubles with Zaman.
--Ditta Huber, a sophomore, had a strong fall season after reaching the semifinals of the 1996 Rolex Championships. In 1996, she was 14-12, primarily at No. 2 singles, as well as playing No. 2 doubles.
--London, a junior, earned All-American honors in doubles last season with Italiano and also had a solid year playing No. 3 singles with a 19-12 record.
--Eva Jimenez, a sophomore from Madrid, Spain, did not play much in 1996 due to a pinched nerve in her back. She is healthy in 1997, however, and looks to improve upon her 3-5 singles record last season.
Other returners, several of whom should play important roles, include senior Sabrina Lau (2-6 in 1996), juniors Pam Trump (10-16, mostly at No. 5 singles, as well as No. 2 doubles) and Amber Basica (8-9) and sophomore Kate Callaghan (0-1). Gallien has added 3 newcomers to the mix as well: Veronika Safarova from the Czech Republic, Jacqui Boyd of South Africa and Staci Smith. Boyd, who joined the Women of Troy in January, is the No. 2 junior player in South Africa, and Safarova was one of the top juniors in the Czech Republic.
All together, Gallien believes this group can have great success in 1997. "I was happy with my first year here, but I wasn't pleased with our final finish," Gallien said. "USC is used to finishing much higher and the expectations of the program are a lot higher. There is some rebuilding to be done and I have to be somewhat patient, but we have a lot of talent and I feel we can accomplish great things."