|Tennis continues upward trend|
With seven fourth-year seniors and five talented newcomers on the roster, and coming off the best season in program history, the Idaho women's tennis team had high expectations heading into the 2010-11 season. And the Vandals did not disappoint, finishing with a 17-8 overall record to make it five consecutive winning seasons and send their seniors off with a 73-34 record over the last four years.
"We had some ups and downs, but overall it was definitely a good year. It was an interesting mix of newcomers and seniors," Idaho coach Tyler Neill said. "I think it was a group that liked to have fun on the court. They enjoyed competing, they wanted to be out there and they had that never-give-up attitude, that no matter what the situation was they're still trying to find a way to win."
That attitude came in handy on multiple occasions. Four times in 2011 the Vandals were tied 3-3 in a dual match, and faced an uphill battle for the final singles point. Natalie Kirch faced two match points against UAB in the deciding set, as did Barbara Maciocha against Utah State. Victoria Lozano trailed 4-0 in the third set of a 3-3 overall match against Portland, and Molly Knox trailed 4-0 in the deciding third set against Cal. State Fullerton. But in all four matches, the Vandals fought through the odds, and pulled out a victory.
"Those come from behind victories were pretty exciting," Neill said. "We had four wins where it came down to the last match, and we were down significantly in those matches and were able to come back. I think we had more of those matches this year than I've had in my entire coaching career previously."
One of the biggest things working with the Vandals in 2011 was the team's depth. With some talented youngsters holding down the top two singles spots for a majority of the season - freshman Lozano at No. 1 and sophomore Lauren Simpson at No. 2 - it was some experienced veterans who led the rest of the lineup. Senior Silvia Irimescu spent most of the season at the No. 3 singles spot, and Maciocha, Knox, Yvette Ly, Kirch and Alejandra Lozano split up the final three singles spots. Of those five, only Knox, a junior, and Alejandra Lozano, a freshman, weren't fourth-year seniors at Idaho. And the experience in the bottom of the lineup paid dividends for the Vandals, as Idaho went a combined 55-19 in the bottom three singles spots on the season, a winning percentage of .743. Maciocha helped that cause with 19 wins in the spring, and 26 on the season overall to propel her to Idaho's all-time career singles wins record with 86 career wins, breaking Patricia Ruman's previous record of 79.
"One of the things about this team, a thing that I always thought was a strength, was our depth," Neill said. "Going into the year it was so tough to figure out where to put players in our lineup because on any given day anyone in our top six was capable of beating anyone else. That's a nice problem to have when they're all playing at a high level, and being able to count on the 4-, 5-, 6 coming through most of the time, that's obviously nice to have."
Despite losing an outstanding senior class that helped build the program into a perennial winner, the Vandals have a lot to look forward to in the future. Those talented youngsters on the 2011 roster are poised to be even more talented experienced upperclassmen in seasons to come.
"Our underclassmen got some good experience this year. Obviously they are very talented and I think with another year under their belt, they will come out even stronger next season," Neill said.
While the Idaho men's tennis team has been on an upward trend over the last several years, the 2010-11 season was a record-setting season for the Vandals in many ways.
The Vandals earned the program's first ever top-50 national ranking. Senior Lachlan Reed tied Idaho's single-season singles wins record, originally set nearly three and a half decades ago. And, the Vandals beat in-state rival Boise State for the first time since the 1980s.
In all, Idaho finished with a 19-8 overall record, including a 4-2 mark in Western Athletic Conference play, and advanced to the WAC semifinals for the second straight year.
"We had a great year, certainly in terms of number of wins, wins against nationally ranked opponents, achieving national ranking and achieving recognition for individual players," Idaho coach Jeff Beaman said. "We had as much as you could hope for out of the year."
The Vandals started the spring season ranked in the top-75, checking in at No. 73 in the preseason poll, but quickly fell out after a loss to Oregon in just the third match of the season on Jan. 28. But after falling to the Ducks, the Vandals went on a tear of 12 wins in their next 13 matches, including wins over No. 62 San Francisco and No. 59 Boise State on consecutive days which propelled Idaho back into the national rankings at No. 57. Idaho's win over BSU was the first for the Vandals since April 7, 1988.
"There's a personal checklist of things you'd like to accomplish in your time at a program, and some might be goals such as national rankings and making nationals," Beaman said. "But beating Boise State was definitely one of the high items on my list, and I never really knew if it was an accomplishment that we'd get, and we did it."
Idaho didn't play its first home match of the season until it hosted Utah State, Fresno State and Hawai'i in a set of WAC matches the second weekend of April. In those matches the Vandals came away with wins over Utah State and No. 56 Hawai'i, and narrowly fell to No. 44 Fresno State. The very next week, Idaho owned the programs highest ever national ranking and its first top-50 national ranking when the Vandals climbed all the way up to No. 46 in the country.
"I think the top-50 ranking is just another thing on our checklist, another one of our goals," Beaman said. "First it's a winning season, then it's getting into the national rankings, then it's getting into the top 50. I think the only two things that are left are winning the conference and getting an NCAA bid."
Senior Lachlan Reed went on a 17-match winning streak that lasted a majority of the season, as he put together a 22-4 record in the spring, and went 31-7 overall, tying Idaho's single-season singles wins record which was set back in the 1976-77 season by Joe Hignight and Rod Leonard, and only matched by Stanislav Glukhov in 2009-10 before Reed.
When you couple Reed, who was a first-team All-WAC selection, WAC Player of the Week and WAC All-Tournament team honoree as Idaho's No. 2 singles player, with Marius Cirstea, Idaho's No. 1 singles player and a first-team All-WAC selection and WAC Player of the Week as well, and Alex Joitoiu, who posted a 15-10 record at No. 3 singles in the spring, Beaman feels the top of his lineup could compete with anybody in the nation. However, with Reed and Joitoiu being seniors, that leaves big holes to fill going into next season.
"Our top three were as good as anybody in the country," Beaman said. "Which also for next year means it's going to be hard to replicate what we had this year. We lose some guys who contributed a ton of leadership and wins, but we did make progress. Our 4-, 5-, 6 guys got better as the year went on. Marius just continues to develop. He's coming back and he can be one of the best players in the country."