WALLA WALLA, Wash. – Heidi Tate, coach of the women’s tennis team at Whitman, is cooking up a surprise for other teams in the Northwest Conference.
Her recipe is simple enough: Start with three experienced seniors and then blend in a handful of talented sophomores and first-year players. And while her tennis soufflé has yet to rise and take shape, Tate likes both the quality and quantity of her ingredients.
"This is the most talent and depth we’ve had in a few years," Tate says. "We don’t have a huge roster, but every player we have is solid. We have good players in our senior and sophomore classes, and our three first-year players are really pushing the veterans and looking to have a big impact this season. I think we're going to surprise some teams this spring."
After placing fourth a year ago during the NWC regular season with a 10-6 record, the Missionaries have their sights set higher for the next few months. "Our goal as a team is to finish higher than fourth in the regular season and then head into the conference championship tournament with a higher seed that we’ve had recently."
Whitman opens its season this Saturday with three non-conference matches in Lewiston, Idaho. The Missionaries start with Montana State-Billings at noon, play Albertson at 4 p.m. and then finish at 8 p.m. against Lewis-Clark State, the day’s host team.
Tate and assistant coach Hannah Swee were still sorting through possible line-ups earlier this week, but look for senior tri-captains Katie Collier (Issaquah, Wash; Issaquah HS), Emily Smith (Redmond, Ore.; American School of Lima, Peru) and Maura Flaherty (Salem, Ore.; Blanchet HS) to fill half of the slots in singles.
"Katie played No. 2 singles for us last spring, and she had a good season," Tate says. "She won the consolation bracket of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) regional tournament last fall, and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t have another strong season."
Smith played primarily at No. 3 and No. 4 last spring. Flaherty was the anchor at No. 5 or No. 6. "Both Emily and Maura are playing as well right now as they ever have," Tate says. "I’ve always liked having Maura in one of the last two spots. We can put her there and know we’re going to get a win a lot of the time. She’s kind of like our closer. In terms of mental toughness, Maura is one of our best."
Her three seniors are doing a great job as captains, Tate says. "They are excited about their last season, and they’re doing as much as they can to keep the team motivated. Everyone is focused and working hard."
Collier, one of the captains, is the reigning Sportswoman of the Year for NWC women's tennis.
Tate expects a strong season from sophomore Katie Oost (Poulsbo, Wash.; N. Kitsap HS), who struggled a year ago with a leg injury. "Katie was dealing with a fairly seriouos injury last spring, but she’s healthy now and should have a much stronger season. She’s one of our most athletic players, and she’s a fighter on the court."
Whitman’s three first-year players should all make major contributions this season, Tate says. All three played well in last fall’s ITA regional tournament.
Hadley DeBree, who comes to Whitman from Wood River High School in Hailey, Idaho, advanced to the singles quarterfinals of the fall tournament. She knocked off a seeded player in the second round and later dropped a close 7-5, 6-2 decision to the No. 2 seed, Linfield senior Becca Johnson, in the quarters.
"Hadley had a fairly high ranking among the Intermountain juniors," Tate says. "She can play."
Margo Lentz, a first-year player from Hellgate High School in Missoula, Mont., won a pair of matches in the fall tournament before losing to a seeded player on the second day of competition. "Margo also played in some of the Intermountain sectional tournaments," Tate says.
Both DeBree and Lentz will give the singles line-up a definite boost, Tate says. "Hadley and Margo have different strengths and different styles of play, but both are very good in singles."
Divneet Kaur, a first-year player from Marist High School in Eugene, Ore., gives the Missionaries a third talented newcomer. "Divneet always did well in her high school state tournaments," Tate says. "She’s also a very solid singles player, although she’s been having trouble with one of her wrists."
Two sophomores, Alex Robinson (Seattle, Wash.; Lakeside School) and Jacquie Frank (Hayden Lake, Idaho; Coeur d’Alene HS), round out the Missionary roster.
Robinson has been slowed by illness in recent months, Tate says. "Alex is a good player, and we’re hoping to get her back to full strength by the second half of the season."
Frank is less experienced but could work her way into one of the doubles tandems as the season goes along, Tate says.
"It’s great to have a more athletic team this season," Tate adds. "I think we showed some of that ability with how well we did in the fall tournament."
Tate and Swee were still playing with possible doubles combinations earlier this week. "We’re still matching strengths and weaknesses and looking for players who complement one another."
Linfield, the defending NWC champion, remains the team to beat this season, even though it lost its No. 1 singles player to season-ending injury during the fall tournament. More recently, the Wildcats lost their No. 4 singles player to another severe injury.
"Linfield still has two very good seniors," Tate says. "They’re down a bit, but they’re still strong."
As many as six NWC schools should field good teams this spring, Tate says. "Pacific Lutheran and Puget Sound are always good, and Willamette should be better. There won’t be too many easy matches in our conference."
Whitman opens its NWC regular season Feb. 17-18 at Linfield and Willamette. The Missionaries then host George Fox and Lewis & Clark Feb. 23-24.
Swee, now in her second season as an assistant coach, graduated from Whitman in the spring of 2005 after a stellar four-year career. She was named to the All-NWC First as a senior and junior, after earning second-team honors as a sophomore. She also was named NWC Sportswoman of the Year at the end of her senior season.
"Hannah wants to coach her own team someday, and it's great to have her here as an assistant," Tate says. "The players like her and respond well to what she tries to teach them."
Dave Holden, Whitman Sports Information
(509) 527-5902; firstname.lastname@example.org