Photo: Michael Wong
PASADENA (Feb. 2, 2018) – As expectations begin to rise for the 40th-ranked Caltech women's tennis team, so too does the skill level and drive of this year's 10-woman squad.
The women are coming off a fourth-place finish in the SCIAC during a season in which they cemented themselves as a competitive mid-level SCIAC team, one with the likes of California Lutheran University. The Beavers beat the Regals twice last season, the first victory being the program's first win over a nationally ranked opponent ever (7-2). The second win came in the SCIAC Tournament, where the Beavers clinched a 5-1 win to clinch their best conference finish of all time. This year's team will have the expectation of fending off the Regals once again, in addition to overcoming top-three teams including but not limited to the University of Redlands.
The talent is there for Head Coach Mandy Gamble's team to do big things again, having only lost one senior in bottom-three singles player Sophia Chen '17.
"Qualifying for the postseason for the first time is a pretty special accomplishment," Gamble said. "Competing with the top teams will come in time but last year we had a very strong performance against Redlands in season and came up a little short. We lost a couple of 3 setters that day that just didn't go our way to pull the upset. This year we are hoping for a different result and will be playing them very soon."
The success of the 2018 women's tennis team will start at the top. Junior Kana Moriyama (Redmond, Wash. / Redmond) rose to the occasion in 2017 and became a reliable top option for the Beavers at first singles. The junior pulled together a 14-11-overall record and won four SCIAC matches while also going undefeated when asked to play second singles (4-0). The SCIAC rewarded Moriyama for her strong season with First Team All-SCIAC honors.
"Kana had a breakout season last year," Gamble said. "She stepped up to play and showed she could compete with the best players in conference. I expect her to keep after the process. We are going to work on a few strategic things during the season that should help her continue to be a solid contributor to the team."
Only one fellow Beaver topped Moriyama's 2017 winning percentage – sophomore Angelica Zhou (Temple City, Calif. / Arcadia) who went 13-6 (11-3 dual) as the Beavers' primary third singles player, though three of her wins came in the second singles slot. Additionally, she established herself as one of the team's top doubles players with an 11-9 overall record. Like Moriyama, Zhou received SCIAC recognition, being named to the All-Conference Second Team and thus joining junior Julia Reisler (Plano, Texas / Greenhill) as the second rookie Beaver in as many years to earn Second Team honors. As good as the sophomore performed as a rookie, her performance at the ITA West Regional may indiciate a sign of even better things on the horizon. In making the finals of the second consolation singles bracket, Zhou became the second finalist the program has ever produced at ITA's.
Zhou, along with Moriyama were two of three Beavers in 2017 to be graced with the SCIAC Athlete of the Week honor. Fellow freshman Alexandra Bodrova (Russia / Kurchatovskaya School) became the first Caltech player of the year to receive the recognition and went on to have a positive year in her own right (11-4 singles, 8-8 doubles). Along with Moriyama and the returning Reisler (6-3 conference doubles) should make up the nucleus of another strong women's tennis team with added upside particularly in doubles where chemistry looms large.
"Doubles is really important in college tennis and we work a lot on it," Gamble said. "Two years ago we were 21 games under .500 so I'm happy to see our work is paying off. Chemistry is really important in doubles but you also want to make sure playing styles compliment each other tactically and competively."
The women's produced 30 individual wins out of its bottom three singles positions last year and seniors Erin Wang (Auburn, Calif. / Del Oro), Vinci Chen (Austin, Texas / Westwood) and Sarah Cai (Livermore, Calif. / West Lafayette Jr./Sr.) will be tasked with taking on Sophia Chen's role last year of grinding out wins in the lower singles slots. Wang in particular saw a heavy dose of action between fourth, fifth and sixth singles (10-7 dual) but also went 2-0 when tasked with stepping into third singles. Above all else, their leadership will be counted to carry the Beavers through whatever trials and tribulations may await them this season.
"Our leadership is really strong," Gamble said. "Vinci and Erin have done an outstanding job and are the glue that holds the squad together. We are a supportive group and the students love being part of it."
Replacing the graduating Chen will be three freshmen, Sarina Liu (Rolling Hills, Calif. / Palos Verdes Peninsula), Ankita Roychoudhury (Madison, Conn. / Daniel Hand) and Jessica Ye (Lutherville-Timonium, Md./Dulaney), the former two of which will instantly become the two tallest players on the team. They figure to make an immediate impact in filling out the Beavers' singles lineup while giving Gamble and her staff some added flexibility in doubles play, where a heavy emphasis has been heading into 2018.
"Sarina, Ankita and Jessica are wonderful, Gamble said. "I am thrilled with the effort they are putting in and they both really want to improve and make an impact. They all have lots of talent and want to get better so it is all about developing a good coaching relationship with them and they will accomplish a lot."
Gamble and the Beavers are slated to begin their season on Saturday, Feb. 3 when they travel to reigning SCIAC champion Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Colleges for a 10 a.m. match.