WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- The Whitman College women's tennis team may be a bit difficult to recognize this spring. Gone are perennial all-Northwest Conference players Amy Fong and Leslie Whitten, the heart and soul of the team for the previous four seasons, along with long-time coach Jayne McCarthy.
McCarthy opted for retirement last summer after 14 years successful seasons. Her enthusiastic replacement is Heidi Tate, a player and later women's coach and director of tennis at NCAA Div. I Montana State University.
"We have a lot of new faces on the team this year, and not very many expectations around the conference," Tate says. "We could surprise a lot of people."
Whitman's rosters boast a solid crop of youngsters with a pair of experienced veterans in senior Joanna Cutler (Portland OR / Lincoln HS) and junior Selima Serna (Puyallup WA / Rogers HS). Cutler and Serna, team co-captains, were contributors last spring as the Missionaries rolled to a 10-3 NWC record, which included a 5-4 loss in the semifinals of conference championship tournament.
Cutler played No. 3 singles last year and teamed with sophomore Monica Hilmer (Medford OR / St. Mary's School) in No. 2 doubles. Serna split time between No. 4 and No. 5 singles. Hilmer is studying abroad this semester but plans to return to the team next fall.
Tate continues to tinker with her singles pecking order, although she says her two captains will see time in both singles and doubles.
One possibility in doubles has Cutler teaming with first-year player Paola Vizcaino of Metepec, Mexico. A second probable tandem has Serna playing with another first-year player, Molly Mayes (Mill Creek WA / Jackson HS). Mayes' brother Geoff was a dominant force on the Whitman men's team last year, playing most of the season at No. 1 singles without losing a single set to a conference opponent.
A third doubles possibility features two more first-year players, Christina Jesaitis (Bozeman MT / Bozeman HS) and Elly Smith (Spokane WA / East Valley HS). Jesaitis, a sophomore, did not play last year. Smith, on the other hand, has already competed in one varsity sport in her freshman year. Smith, a setter and defensive specialist on the volleyball team, brings hustle to the tennis courts and may sneak into Whitman's singles line-up.
Two more freshmen with the talent to play are Meredeth Crandall (Portland OR / Grant HS) and Danielle Warner (Moses Lake WA / Moses Lake HS). "When Meredeth gets at the top of her game, she'll be hard to stop," Tate says. "Danielle is an incredible athlete and a very consistent, steady player."
Vizcaino, who enrolled at Whitman at the semester break, may be the best of this spring's new Missionaries. "I haven't really had a chance to see her play a whole lot, but she has a huge backhand and is very consistent on the baseline," Tate says.
Mayes and Cutler both pack hefty forehands, while Mayes also brings a big serve to her game. Last fall, Mayes and Jesaitis advanced to the doubles semifinal round of the Pacific Northwest Small College Championships, which Whitman hosted in the Bratton Tennis Center. The Missionary twosome lost in the semifinals to the top-seeded team from Lewis-Clark State College. In the singles portion of that tournament, Mayes and Cutler advanced into the quarterfinals before losing.
Whitman opens its season on the road this Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 17-18, with matches against a pair of tough NWC foes, Willamette University and Linfield College.
Willamette, Saturday's opponent, also has a new coach in Becky Roberts and enough returning talent to battle for one of the NWC top spots. On Sunday, Whitman visits Linfield, a heavy favorite to with the NWC title by the time April rolls around.
Tate is enthused about starting the season against two of the strongest teams in the conference. "It will be exciting to see what we can do -- how we stack up against those teams," Tate says. "I'm the newcomer here, so I don't know too much about the other schools. We can just go out there and play and not worry about rankings or who's who in the conference. I'm very happy with the progress we've made as we head into the spring season."
After this weekend, Whitman hosts a string of home matches beginning Tuesday, Feb. 20, with the University of Calgary. The Missionaries then host Whitworth College, Pacific University, George Fox University and Lewis & Clark College -- all conference foes -- before hitting the road again in mid-March.
During Whitman's spring break, the Missionaries travel to California to face some tough competition at Whittier College (Whittier CA), University of Redlands (Redlands CA), Occidental College (Los Angeles CA), and Colorado College (match to be played in Claremont, Calif.).
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