WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Leslie Whitten and Amy Fong have assembled quite a tennis resume in their first three seasons at Whitman College.
Now, with the start of their fourth and final spring season only days away, Whitten and Fong would like nothing better than to crown their collegiate careers with a Northwest Conference (NWC) team title and one more trip to nationals.
As doubles partners, Whitten (Spokane WA, University HS) and Fong (Spokane WA, Mead HS) have seldom lost over the past two seasons. They were 15-0 against conference opponents last spring (20-1 on the season), stretching their winning streak over NWC foes to 23 consecutive victories.
Whitten, who was conference Player of the Year last season, also played No. 1 singles, compiling records of 13-2 in conference and 15-4 overall. Despite a bad back, Fong played No. 2 singles and posted records of 12-3 in the NWC and 14-4 on the season.
Over the past two seasons, Whitten and Fong have led the Missionaries to team victories in 21 of their last 24 conference dual matches. At last spring's conference championship tournament, Whitman lost a heart-breaking 5-4 decision to Linfield College -- a team it had defeated during the regular season -- in the semifinals.
As was the case a year ago, Linfield and Pacific Lutheran University will battle Whitman in the months ahead for the conference title. "Both PLU and Linfield are tough teams with very good players," Missionary coach Jayne McCarthy said. "With depth as our forte, anything can happen in the conference tournament."
Fong and Whitten, three-time all-conference players, are only part of the most experienced team McCarthy has had in her 13 seasons at Whitman. Anna Beattie (Palo Alto CA, Castilleja HS), another senior, adds more seasoned leadership.
Joanna Cutler (Portland OR, Lincoln HS), a junior, also is back after playing much of last season at No. 3 singles and as part of Whitman's No. 2 doubles team. Unfortunately, her doubles partner, junior Alexis Kramer, is studying in France this entire academic year, which leaves Cutler in search of a new doubles partner.
McCarthy has yet to decide who might join Cutler in filling Whitman's No. 2 and No. 3 doubles combinations. Sophomores Monica Hilmer (Medford OR, St. Mary's School) and Sarah McKinstry (Seattle WA, Lakeside School) are among the possibilities.
Given the conference talent level, many dual matches might be decided at No. 2 and No. 3 doubles, McCarthy noted. "Most teams in our league have three very good players," she said, but might be forced to play less talented players in the two lower doubles matches. "Since our team is strong in all spots, our No. 3 doubles team could score key swing points for us this year."
McCarthy, who was recognized last season with her fourth conference Coach of the Year award, knows that success in doubles depends on more than each player's skill level. "Personality is the key to doubles," she said. "Both partners need to communicate well to be successful. You always feel better when you know your partner is supporting you."
After playing several doubles matches for Whitman last year, McKinstry should continue to make significant contributions in that area this season, McCarthy said. "Sarah was a key doubles player in high school, and she will play a key role with one of our doubles teams this spring."
Hilmer, on the other hand, will probably play both singles as well as doubles. She played No. 5 singles last season.
Freshman Ashley Trout (Washington D.C., Georgetown Day HS) also has shown enough talent to play this spring. "Ashley is a very good athlete and an aggressive player," McCarthy said. "If she continues to improve, she could break into the top six this season."
Adding more depth to this year's squad are returning sophomores Selima Serna (Puyallup WA, Rogers HS) and Tamiko Shiery (Ontario OR, Ontario HS), both of whom saw match time last season. Serna, in fact, played the entire season in the No. 6 singles spot.
While co-captains Whitten and Fong will lead Whitman's charge toward a possible conference title, they also have their sights set on qualifying for the NCAA Division III national championships. They capped their first two seasons at Whitman by winning the conference doubles title and advancing to the NAIA national championships.
By their junior seasons, however, Whitman had switched its national affiliation, and qualifying for the NCAA DIII national tournament is much more difficult. Only four doubles teams from the West Region, which includes the Pacific Northwest and state of California, advance to nationals.
Whitten and Fong, who begin the season with a No. 6 regional ranking, must play well against stiff competition to move up the ranking ladder. "Leslie and Amy will need to win key matches against Claremont, Whittier and conference rival PLU, each of whom have very good doubles teams," McCarthy said. "If they can get wins in those matches, they will gain the creditability they need to be picked as one of the top doubles teams."Whitman also has a legitimate shot at qualifying its entire women's team for the regional championship tournament. The top five schools in the west qualify for that competition, which will then will send two teams to the national finals. Whitman, which is currently ranked No. 7 in the west, is slated to play three teams later this spring that begin the season with a higher regional ranking.
The Whitman women open their season this Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 12-13, against two tough non-conference opponents, Lewis-Clark State College and Gonzaga University. Both matches will be played at the Bratton Tennis Center. Gonzaga is an NCAA Div. I school while LCSC is NAIA Div. I.
McCarthy remains optimistic about her teams' chances in their season openers. "I have tremendous confidence in my players. They have nothing to lose (against Gonzaga and LCSC), and should play well against them."
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information, 509 527-5902