With a roster that boasts just one senior and one junior returning letterwinner, using the phrase “young” to describe this year’s Linfield women’s tennis team is probably an understatement.
But if the incoming freshmen play anything like last year’s rookies, who combined for a 24-10 record in singles play, the prognosis for the Wildcats is a good one.
Even with the loss of national tournament participant Abby Olbrich to graduation, depth remains a key strength for Linfield. Three talented Wildcats compose a relatively interchangeable top half of the singles lineup, spots 4-6 are up for grabs, and head coach Amy Dames Smith’s confidence extends to all 12 players in the program.
However, needing time to evaluate a slew of new varsity players and allow two top players who were not on campus for January Term to shake off the rust means it might take a while for everything to shake out. The lineup that takes the court to start the season might look very different from the group that hopefully trots out for a Northwest Conference tournament championship match in April.
“Typically as the season progresses, the cream kind of rises to the top and things fall into place,” Dames Smith said.
At least for now, lone senior Lexi Thomas has emerged as the No. 1 singles player, solidifying her position with strong preseason play.
“She has come into her own and has the maturity of having played nearly four seasons of college tennis,” Dames Smith said of Thomas. “She’s at ease with herself out there.”
Rock-solid, even-keel Caroline Brigham holds down another one of the top singles flights. She went 12-8 last season and is Linfield’s only regionally touted singles player (23) according to a preseason rankings list released in early November.
Kaila Nip, who went undefeated in both singles and doubles action against Northwest Conference opponents as a freshman, is an integral part of the team who brings energy, fire and fight to every match.
In the mix for Nos. 4-6 singles are returners Kelly Watanabe (11-5) and Gretchen Jernstedt (0-1) and freshmen Kwynn Ecton and Emily Erbin.
Doubles pairings look to feature Nip and Watanabe in the top flight, Brigham and Ecton at No. 2 doubles, and Thomas and Erbin – the two tallest players in the program – rounding out the tandem competition.
Fluidity in the lineup has the potential to lead to negative intrasquad competition for some teams. But Dames Smith is confident in the coaching staff’s ability to create the strongest lineup for each match, and more importantly, she has faith that the Wildcats maintain focused on the big picture.
“A lot of emphasis daily is put onto team,” she said. “That’s one of the coolest things about college tennis: it becomes so much more of a team sport than it is when you’re playing in juniors.”
Linfield’s priority is defending its status as the regular season champion. If accomplished, it would be the Wildcats’ eighth title in 11 seasons.
Along with her team’s strong desire to repeat, work ethic and cohesion, Dames Smith considers one of Linfield’s greatest strengths to be the continual development and improvement of her players, including those who may not step out onto the varsity court every match.
“Some of it is maturity,” she said, “but there have also been some girls that have put in extra time in the offseason and have continued to grow and develop as tennis players. I’m really encouraged by that and am really looking forward to seeing that as the season progresses.”
In addition to a couple of tough early season matchups against UC-Santa Cruz and Whitman, two clubs that won their conference tournaments a season ago to advance to the NCAA Championships, the biggest obstacles standing in the way of a repeat title for Linfield are Lewis & Clark and Whitworth. Due to the conference’s “round robin and a half” schedule, the Wildcats face the “Whits” once each and the Pioneers twice, the latter matches just two weeks apart.