|2011-12 Tennis Yearbook|
With a first-year head coach taking over a program with only four players on the roster last July, it's fair to say there was uncertainty surrounding the Idaho women's tennis team entering the 2011-12 season. When one of those returnees left Idaho due to illness before even playing a match, there was cause for concern. But head coach Dan Pollock took the challenge head-on as he lead the Vandals to one of their most successful seasons in the last 20 years.
"Going into the season I wanted to have a winning season, but I wasn't sure much beyond that what we were going to achieve, considering our lack of experience, as one of those returnees really didn't play very much last year," Pollock said. "It's probably one of the toughest schedules that we've played at Idaho in a while, so a winning season was my main goal, but I would never have thought we would have done as well as we did."
Despite the obstacles, the Vandals "overachieved", according to Pollock.
Idaho boasted a 19-8 overall record and a 3-1 record in Western Athletic Conference play. The Vandals advanced to the WAC semifinals where they narrowly lost to eventual champion Hawai'i. Idaho also had three players earn a total of five WAC Player of the Week or Month honors, two who earned all-WAC honors and one earn a spot on the WAC all-tournament team. Idaho's .704 winning percentage is topped only by the team's 20-6 season in 2010, as far as season records go back, dating to the 1994-95 season.
"I think overachieving is a good word. They definitely overachieved," Pollock said. "If you look at what we were supposed to do on paper versus what we did in the matches, it's a testament to the way they rallied around one another. They don't just rely on one or two people to win matches every week. Everybody would go out and bust their butt and see who picks up the wins that week. They definitely did overachieve because of how highly motivated they were and how badly they want to win, and they don't want to win for themselves, they want to win for each other."
In addition to returning senior Molly Knox and sophomores Alejandra and Victoria Lozano, Pollock added Beatriz Flores, Almudena Sanz and Sophie Vickers to the roster heading into the fall. That gave the Vandals the minimum number of players necessary to compete in a dual match, six. When the spring semester, and dual match play began, Pollock added Annamaria Gould, a senior who spent her freshman year on the team in 2008-09.
"It's very rare to have such a small team, especially on the women's side where you have eight full scholarships," Pollock said. "With our situation, with me taking over in July and having only four girls on the roster - and one of them going home sick as soon as she got here - just to get enough girls to play was a minor miracle, and getting the girls to do this well was pretty amazing."
After a 2-2 start, the Vandals won nine of their next 11 matches to improve to 11-4 by early March. That stretch saw Sanz, Knox and Victoria Lozano earn WAC Player of the Week honors in consecutive weeks.
"You don't get individual players recognized if you're bad as a team," Pollock said. "Only the best teams get recognized and it happened to us. The girls did a great job. It was the girls at the top of the lineup who got the recognition, but all the way down they did a great job. When you win as a team it puts you in the regional and national spotlight, and it makes the big wins that individuals have within the team stand out even more, that's why they got those awards."
After winning seven of their last nine matches to finish the regular season, Idaho headed to the WAC tournament with the No. 3 overall seed. A dominating 4-0 victory in the quarterfinals against Utah State put the Vandals in the semis against second-seeded Hawai'i. However, that's where the season ended for Idaho, as UH squeaked by with a 4-3 win to get to the finals.
At the tournament, Vicky Lozano was honored as a first-team all WAC selection for singles, and along with Sanz, was a first-team all-WAC pick for doubles. Lozano also earned WAC all-tournament team honors after going 2-0 at No. 1 singles in the tournament. Sanz earned second-team all-WAC singles recognition.
With five of the six players in Idaho's everyday lineup set to return next season, Pollock hopes the team can once again exceed expectations, ones that will be much higher heading into 2012-13.
"You always hope that from year-to-year you're going to improve," Pollock said. "Next year's schedule is even more difficult. My expectation is that we get better and we beat some of those teams that beat us this year. Those girls coming back should be better, and the girls coming in should already be at an extremely high level, so the hope is that we're challenging for a postseason berth."
Despite climbing to as high as No. 56 in the national rankings early in the season, things were not looking good for the Idaho men's tennis team near the end of March. The Vandals owned an 8-13 overall record, and the team's four-match win streak that began a month earlier seemed a distant memory. Since then Idaho had lost seven straight, and still had three of its five Western Athletic Conference matches ahead on the schedule.
But instead of packing it in early, the Vandals made the most of their opportunity by winning their last five matches of the regular season and clinching the WAC's No. 2 seed along the way. Idaho stayed hot with its second 4-3 victory over Hawai'i in as many weeks in the WAC semifinals, and narrowly missed an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament when it fell 4-2 to Fresno State in the program's first WAC championship match.
"The team certainly had a rough stretch there in the middle to go from being in the rankings with some big wins early, to a fair number of losses in a row," Idaho coach Jeff Beaman said. "The players didn't just cash it in and look forward to next year. They kept working on doubles and they actually ended up finishing very strong with team wins. It was a productive year and it really sets us up well for next year to jump back into a high national ranking."
The Vandals finished with a 14-14 overall record, but their second-place WAC finish was the team's highest since joining the league in 2005, and their appearance in the WAC finals was also a first for the program. That's just one more accomplishment in the rebuilding process that Beaman started when he took over a team in 2007 that went just 2-22 the season prior.
"It's the whole process of getting to a winning record, then winning a match in the conference tournament, then getting nationally ranked," Beaman said. "We've made it to there and the next goal is to reach the NCAA team championships. We were just a matter of points from achieving that this year."
Idaho's even .500 record can be a bit misleading. The Vandals may have traded wins for competitive experience by scheduling eight matches against nationally ranked teams, and picking up an ninth in the WAC finals against Fresno State. The Vandals went 1-7 against their nationally ranked opponents, but Beaman said that experience aided the team's surge at the end of the season.
"When we played Fresno State in the final, you could see that we weren't surprised by anything," Beaman said. "The top teams, the ones that spend time in the top-25 across the board they're mentally tougher and hitting the ball harder. They're doing everything at a higher level. We've seen that with the Washingtons, the Fresno States, the Boise States, when you've seen it and competed against it there are no surprises. You don't have to adjust to their pace, you know what to expect."
When it looks to reach new heights again next season, the Vandals will return all but a pair of seniors to the roster. Andrew Dobbs, who went 15-11 in doubles in the spring, along with Alan Shin, who went 17-10 in singles, will graduate. That leaves five of Idaho's top six intact for next season, and with the addition of redshirt Dmitry Perevoshchikov Beaman believes the team's goal of reaching the NCAA tournament is with reach.
"The next goal is getting to the NCAA championships," Beaman said. "Hopefully by winning the conference tournament, but also having a high enough team rank that we qualify for an at-large bid if for some reason we don't win the tournament."