PASADENA, Calif. (Feb. 6, 2015) – An infusion of six talented newcomers and three returning starters, including last year's No. 18-ranked player in the West region, are set to lead the Caltech women's tennis team in defense of its No. 11 position in the ITA West Regional Rankings.
"We are approaching our preparation and matches with a real purpose," Head Coach Mandy Gamble said. "We want to plan our attacks and funnel patterns to our strengths. As the sport evolves, we're trying to be at the forefront, and you'll see that in our play."
Junior Monica Li (Boulder, Colo. / Fairview) will take over at #1 singles after starring mostly at court #2 last season, where she went 10-5. As the team's only upperclassman, she will also shoulder a leadership role both on and off the court.
"This could be a really big growth year for Monica," Gamble said. "The experience from having played at #1 singles in the past will be a big help, and with a pretty new team overall she is taking her newfound leadership role very well."
Freshman Sarah Cai (Livermore, Calif. / West Lafeyette Jr./Sr.) will follow in Li's footsteps as the Beavers' #2 right from Day One after a high school career that culminated in First Team All-State honors. The rookie will look to adapt quickly to the college game and create a formidable 1-2 punch with Li for the next two years.
"Sarah is just a really good player who has some great potential," Gamble said. "She is learning to recognize when to attack and how to pick up on patterns, but has bought into what we're doing since the first day of the ITA regionals."
The #3 spot will go to sophomore Sophia Chen (Newport Beach, Calif. / Corona Del Mar) to start the season. Having played all 18 matches as a rookie, she is set to step up a few spots after posting a 4-9 record at #5 singles and 1-2 at #4.
"Sophia got a lot of valuable experience last year, and while the big step up will be a challenge as it would for anyone, she just needs to limit her unforced errors to really break through," Gamble said. "She put in a lot of conditioning and technique work over the offseason, and it is clear the rest of the team followed her lead in that."
Freshmen Grace Yao (La Palma, Calif. / Oxford Acad.) and Erin Wang (Auburn, Calif. / Del Oro) are set to compete for the #4 and #5 singles slots. Yao is one of the Beavers' most fearsome players at the net, while Wang is extremely quick and seems to have a knack for finding ways to win.
"Grace has been an amazing surprise since stepping on campus – she probably never considered playing college tennis, but is just plain good and will be very valuable to us over her career," Gamble said. "Erin is very quick and is the type of player who just manages to sneak out wins even when you wouldn't expect it."
Rounding out the likely starting lineup is freshman Vinci Chen (Austin, Texas / Westwood), who comes from a three-time district championship team where she was named All-District in mixed doubles. Her biggest contribution thus far has been her incredible personality and vocal presence, but her quick movement and natural instincts on the court should turn some heads as well.
"Vinci will start out in the #6 spot, but her real strength is in doubles, where she shows seamless movement and awareness," Gamble said. "Her constantly cheerful personality is perfect for this team too – it has really caught fire and raises our energy every day at practice, and we're looking forward to seeing it in matches."
Freshman Rachel Morton (Oxford, Ohio / Talawanda), sophomore Katie Antilla (Redondo Beach, Calif. / Redondo Union) and younger sister freshman Sarah Antilla (Redondo Beach, Calif. / Redondo Union) will all push to break into the lineup. Morton was twice named the Southwest Ohio Conference Player of the Year, while the left-handed Katie played seven matches as a rookie and Sarah brings a ferocious attacking net game.
After trotting out a whopping 15 different doubles pairings last spring, there should be considerably more stability in this year's lineups. Li and Cai will get the first crack at the #1 position, though Vinci Chen's skills could play up enough in doubles to earn her an opportunity to pair with either. Yao will team with Chen to start the year, though, as both complement each other well, while Sophia Chen and Wang will open at #3 doubles.
"Doubles could quickly become our biggest strength this year," Gamble said. "If things break right, they all really have the potential to do some serious damage not only in the conference, but the region."
Gamble and the Beavers will open the season against Biola University on Saturday, Feb. 7 at 11 a.m.