WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- If there was one point that Heidi Tate, the women's tennis coach at Whitman College, didn't need to ponder in recent years, it was who was playing No. 1 singles.
Paola Vizcaino, who came to Whitman from Toluca, Mexico, has filled the top Missionary top spot with ease the past two years, winning all but one of her Northwest Conference matches. Her lone loss came late last spring during a match in which she suffered ankle and foot injuries.
This spring, however, Vizcaino is foregoing her junior season to study in Paris, France. Her studies there are financed by a High Academic Achievement Scholarship, given by the Institute for the International Education of Students.
Despite losing the best player in the NWC, Tate is anything but downcast as she readies her squad for a season that begins Friday and Saturday, Feb. 7-8, with non-conference matches in Idaho.
"With Paola gone, we don't have a player who has proven she can dominate at No. 1 singles, but our overall talent is much stronger this year," Tate says. "It's exciting to have a team that is solid all the way around, from top to bottom. This is one of the most dedicated and committed teams I've ever coached. They're ready and willing to work. This a tough bunch, both physically and mentally."
Tate fields a spring roster of nine players, all but two of whom are in their first or second years at Whitman. The two veterans are Christina Jesaitis (Bozeman, Mont. / Bozeman HS), a senior playing her third season, and junior Molly Mayes (Camarillo, Calif. / Jackson HS-Mill Creek, Wash). Both excel in their roles as team captains, Tate says.
"Their leadership abilities are really remarkable," Tate says. "The tone they set is excellent. I don't know that I've ever had better team captains."
Mayes played most of her sophomore season at No. 4 singles, rolling undefeated through Whitman's conference schedule. Jesaitis, who filled in primarly at No. 5 and No. 6 singles, has improved greatly since last spring, Tate says.
"Every one of our returning players has raised her level of play. It's exciting to see the improvements. They are stronger, more confident."
Hannah Swee (Rochester, Minn. / Mayo HS) and Carissa Klarich (Billings, Mont. / Billings HS) are two sophomores who saw a great deal of court time last season. Three more sophomores with maturing talent are Katy Newhouse (Portland, Ore. / Saint Mary's Academy), Jennifer Spears (Ashland, Ore. / Ashland HS) and Jessica Antilla (Bainbridge Island, Wash. / Bainbridge HS).
New to the squad are two first-year players, Elizabeth Claxton (Paradise Valley, Ariz. / Shadow Mountain HS) and Marta Jankowska (Moscow, Idaho / Moscow HS). "Both Elizabeth and Marta have a lot of talent," Tate says. "They definitely add to the strength of our team."
Tate plans to send all nine of her players onto the court during Whitman's first two non-conference matches. "We'll see who plays well and competes early in the season. All ten of these players are very capable. It might take some time to settle on any kind of regular line-up."
Tate's plans for doubles remain just as cloudy, although she notes that Swee and Klarich played well together in a fall tournament, beating a regionally-ranked duo from NWC rival Linfield.
Linfield, which squeezed past Whitman 5-4 for last year's NWC title, is the early favorite for this spring's crown, Tate says. "I like the fact that Linfield has to be favored. It's going to make us work harder."
The NWC season could easily evolve into a scramble, Tate says. "I don't know that much about the other teams, but we'll need to be ready to play each match. It's going to be a battle. It's going to be fun."
The Missionary women travel to Lewiston, Idaho, to open their spring slate with a pair of non-conference matches. They play Montana State-Billing on Friday, followed by Lewis-Clark State on Saturday.
The Missionaries host their first home on Wednesday, Feb. 12, when the University of Hawaii visits the Bratton Tennis Center.
Whitman plays its first NWC match on Saturday, Feb. 22, against Whitworth. It will be the second of seven consecutive matches the Missionaries will host in the Bratton Tennis Center.
The NWC Championships are set for April 19-21 in Yakima, Wash.