Four years ago, head coach Hugh Bream was in need of restocking a Cal Poly women’s tennis roster that had elevated the team into contention in the Big West Conference.
He got it with the most lauded recruiting class to date, which was headlined by Palm Desert High standout and eventual conference freshman of the year Brittany Blalock.
Tennisrecruiting.net rated Cal Poly third in the nation among mid-major programs for the 2006 class, which also included Melissa Bradford, a player who’s since given up the sport with a chronic back injury.
The class was also bolstered two years later by the addition of Northwestern transfer Suzie Matzenauer, who left Evanston, Ill., to come to Cal Poly following a season in which the Wildcats finished ranked second in the nation.
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The results from that point on have been mixed, but with Blalock and her group of former fabulous freshmen and Matzenauer now seniors, the Mustangs have one last shot to maximize their potential before Bream is rebuilding with another young team next year.
The quest for a conference title and NCAA success, one spurred by some new changes to the lineup, begins today with a season opener at home against Cal State Bakersfield at 2 p.m. The Cal Poly men’s tennis team opens at Pepperdine on Wednesday.
“Our first year, it was so young and full of potential,” said Steffi Wong, one of the three seniors still active from Blalock’s recruiting class. “This year, all four of our seniors are so excited, and we’ve matured so much. I think we’re going to take advantage of all of our experience, and I feel like we’re going to capitalize on it. All of us are excited to start the season, and I’m excited to see what we can do. Our confidence level has reached its peak.”
Wong — an Ontario, Canada, native — Blalock and Danish senior Diane Filip have distinctions to be proud of.
The trio helped lead the team to the finals of the Big West Conference Tournament as freshmen, getting the Mustangs to within one match of the NCAA team championships.
The following season, Blalock and Wong finished the year ranked No. 46 in the country as a doubles team, received first-team Big West honors and advanced to the NCAA doubles championships.
Still, Cal Poly has yet to win a Big West title. The Mustangs finished third last season and failed to send an individual or doubles team to the NCAA championships.
“Freshman year, we lost in the finals,” Blalock said. “The last two years haven’t been as successful. (The Big West title) is a good goal. We’ve been there. We’ve tasted it, the seniors have. So, we know what we have to do to win.”
Aiming to improve the team’s results, Bream has changed the doubles assignments, splitting up the Blalock-Wong duo that got to the postseason two years ago and severing the tie between Matzenauer and junior Amy Markhoff, who would have entered the season as Cal Poly’s highest-rated doubles team at 42nd in the nation.
Instead, Wong will be taking the lead in mentoring freshman Alexa Lee, a former five-star recruit from La Quinta High who followed Blalock’s prep footsteps in the Palm Springs area.
Bream is then putting his two strongest singles players — Maztenauer, who was 24-9 splitting time at the No. 1 spot with Blalock (23-10) last season — on the same doubles team.
“I just think Suzie and Brittney, their personalities complement each other on the court,” Bream said. “Britt is kind of the calm steady hand, and Suzie is the really competitive, fiery, explosive part of the pair. And that balance just really works well for both their chemistry and their level of play.”
Blalock and Matzenauer have only been playing together for a few months and are still feeling each other out as partners. How quickly they congeal could go a long way in determining the success of this team and whether that 2006 recruiting class will be remembered for living up to its lofty expectations.
Players admit to feeling the pressure to succeed in previous years, but this season, there’s a concerted effort to let success come to them.
“You just have to relax and calm down, breathe and think, ‘This is my last year,’ ” Matzenauer said. “I need to just have fun with it. There’s nothing to lose. It’s better to give it your all rather than be tight all year.”