Hugh Bream might have known early on that this would be his last season leading the Cal Poly women’s tennis team.
But the 11-year veteran, who also spent a successful stint coaching the Mustangs men in the 1980s, wasn’t expecting this year’s team to be in the running as one of his best.
Rebounding from the loss of four seniors who occupied the top four singles slots last season, this year’s Cal Poly women could send their coach into retirement with the team’s best finish.
The Mustangs (14-5, 6-1 Big West Conference) host UC Irvine today at 11 a.m. with a chance to clinch no worse than a first-place tie for the regular-season Big West title and head into the conference tournament with as good a chance as any to earn the Big West’s lone automatic NCAA berth.
In a conference that has been dominated by Long Beach State over the past decade, Cal Poly has only gotten to the 64-team bracket once in its Division I history, a 2003 trip where the Mustangs were dispatched 4-0 by nationally ranked Georgia Tech in the first round.
Any further success in the postseason would be unprecedented.
Peaking at No. 42 before back-to-back losses to ranked opponents, Bream has Cal Poly higher than it’s ever been ranked — despite coming into the season hesitant to set result-oriented goals.
“On paper, we shouldn’t be 6-1 in the Big West and 47 nationally,” Bream said. “But the season isn’t played on paper.“This has been one of my best competing teams. Mentally, they’re prepared every single time out to come out and play a tough match, and they’re a super-tenacious group.”
Bream was unsure how the team would mesh after the departure of seniors Brittany Blalock and Suzie Matzenauer, two of the program’s all-time greats, coupled with the promotion of its supporting cast and the addition of four freshmen.
The coach — also a Cal Poly alumnus who guided the men from 1980-88 and won a Division II national championship in 1986 — was sure of his retirement, however, and told the team in November that he’d be stepping down.
Bream also coached the San Diego State men from 1988 to 1993 and was the Avila Bay Athletic Club tennis director for six years before returning to coach the Mustangs’ women in 2000.
The players had a private meeting to declare that they would dedicate their season to their departing coach, but even they lacked a perspective on that declaration.
All they knew at that point was how much they revered Bream.
“Having him as my coach has been one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences I’ve ever been through,” said senior Amy Markhoff, a doubles specialist.
“He cares so much about us as people, and he really focuses on us being well-rounded. He reminds us that it’s good to have a balance of life, spend time with our family and friends. He really instills this great lifestyle in his players, and he’s taught me so much about life and how I want to live.”
Despite all of the turnover, it become clear during a nine-match winning streak and a stretch where Cal Poly took 14 of 15 dual matches that the Mustangs could send Bream out with a season to be proud of.
Sophomore Alexa Lee has enjoyed a leap from the No. 5 singles spot to Cal Poly’s No. 1.
Lee has teamed with Markhoff, who might also be a top-three singles player if not for a shoulder injury that limits her service repetitions, to post a 10-6 doubles record.
Senior Ashley Pane, a former Santa Clara transfer who’s worked her way up from the depths of the lineup, and junior Jocelyn Davis have posted a team-best 12-5 record at No. 2 doubles.
And four freshman — Florence Lehane (10-7), Jennifer Cornea (10-5), Kathryn Webb (15-2) and Gabrielle Gatewood (4-0) — have had breakout performances in their first years on the court.
Playing primarily at the No. 6 singles position, Webb has won 10 of her past 11 matches.
The postseason berth and the potential to make history at Cal Poly is within reach. To attain it, players and coaches agreed, they can’t stray from the outlook that’s made them successful.
“Talent can only get you so far,” Lee said, “especially since we compete in a group setting. We’re just a really tough, resilient, hard-working team to the core. We’re all extremely motivated for everyone to get better, not looking at anyone individually, and to be the most improved team in the country.”