Women's Tennis Ready For Next Level

Jan. 29, 2002

Only four Division I women's tennis programs have reached the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Tournament each of the last three seasons... and USC is one of them.

The Women of Troy, along with Georgia, Florida and Stanford, have made those three consecutive NCAA quarterfinal appearances. Now USC is ready to take the next step.

'We were the youngest team last year in the quarterfinals and this year we have everybody back in addition to one of the nation's top recruits,' said seventh-year head coach Richard Gallien. 'We certainly think we can go a lot farther this year.'

But how far can the 2002 team go?

'I think the team has a sour taste in its mouth after losing in the quarterfinals last year,' said Gallien, who has a 98-62 (.613) record at USC and a 160-86 (.650) career mark. 'But it's important to remember that for four straight years we've gone further in the tournament than was expected. Not once have we lost earlier than we should have, including last year considering how young the team was.

'The difference this year is that our players are a little older, a little more experienced and they definitely understand what it takes to compete in the NCAAs. This year we expect to not only get to the quarterfinals, but it's time to move beyond.'

With seven returning letterwinners, Gallien's 2002 lineup remains virtually unchanged. Of the seven, six were part of the starting rotation in 2001, leading the team to a 20-8 overall record and a tie for second place in the Pac-10 with a 6-2 conference record. The Women of Troy finished the season ranked No. 8.

The 2001 squad consisted of only two upperclassmen and neither were starters. Now USC is looking to find out how much of a difference a year's experience can make.

'Last year I think some teams took us for granted because we had no juniors or seniors in our lineup,' said Gallien. 'Teams may have taken us lightly and the expectations were not set very high. But the expectations are definitely higher this year and we are not going to be able to sneak up on anyone.'

Though the returning letterwinners would undoubtedly do well on their own, Gallien will enjoy the addition of four talented newcomers to this season's squad.

'I feel that with this type of depth and talent we are catching up to the national championship contenders,' said Gallien. 'This is by far the most excited I've been at the start of a season... knowing that we actually do have the ability to start competing with the Top 5 teams on a consistent basis.'

The most difficult task this season will be figuring out how to position these talented players in the starting lineup.

'I always try to downplay lineups as much as possible on the basis that each singles match, no matter the position you play, is still worth one point for the team,' said Gallien. 'So it doesn't really matter where you play as long as you can get the win.'

Junior Jewel Peterson (College Park, Ga.) returns to the top of the lineup where she has shined the past two seasons. In 2001, she earned a No. 22 final ITA singles ranking after posting a 31-13 overall record. Peterson won the 2000 Rolex Regional Singles Championship in the fall and advanced to the third round of the 2001 NCAA Singles Championship at the end of the season. Her accomplishments led to her second consecutive ITA All-America and All-Pac-10 honors.

Competing for positions 2, 3, and 4 will likely be returning juniors Anita Loyola (Tucson, Ariz.) and Maureen Diaz (Glendale, Calif.), and newcomer Luana Magnani (Pasadena, Calif.).

Making a jump from the No. 5 player as a freshman to the No. 2 position as a sophomore, Loyola jumped in-and-out of the ITA rankings throughout the season and collected a 17-19 overall record by season's end. This year Loyola enters the season ranked No. 91 in the ITA preseason poll. Diaz was extremely successful at No. 3 in 2001, her first season at USC after transferring from UC Irvine. With a 33-10 overall record and a 20-6 mark in dual matches (the team's best), she finished the season with a No. 72 ranking and jumped to No. 46 in this year's preseason poll.

Magnani is heralded as one of the nation's top five recruits of 2001 and without delay, she backed it up with her play this fall. A graduate of San Marino (Calif.) High, Magnani accounted for the team's best record in fall tournaments (11-2), earning a No. 34 preseason ranking by the ITA.

'Luana has already made an impact on our team and will continue to do so,' said Gallien. 'She's a winner and a very tough competitor, the kind of player who finds a way to win regardless of the circumstance.'

Junior Tiffany Brymer (Apple Valley, Calif.) and sophomores Bernadette Bayani (Simi Valley, Calif.) and Melissa Esmero (Huntington Beach, Calif.) are expected to complete the second half of the lineup.

'When other teams look at our lineup and see names like Brymer, Bayani and Esmero in the second half they have to think to themselves that this is an awfully strong team,' said Gallien. 'When Melissa fully recuperates from her injury, we'll have seven solid players in the lineup and it will be a difficult decision to make regarding who sits out each match.'

Brymer and Bayani alternated at the No. 4 and 5 spots throughout 2001. Brymer completed the year with a 16-12 overall record (15-9 in dual matches) and Bayani went 18-21 overall and 11-15 in dual matches.

Esmero enjoyed a very successful freshman campaign, which saw her end the season by winning the 2001 Pac-10 Invitational Singles Championship. She was 26-10 on the year despite having to withstand various setbacks. In the spring she was diagnosed with vertigo, then suffered a left elbow sprain this fall, which kept her from competing in preseason tournaments.

Five other players are capable of filling in at the No. 6 and 7 positions for the Women of Troy. Caroline Christian (Frankfurt, Germany) returns for her senior season, while Shannon Croughan (Redlands, Calif.), Jaime Pagliano (Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.) and Christine Setian (Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.) enter their freshman year at USC.

'The great thing about all these players is that they are all pretty fearless,' said Gallien. 'They are never intimidated by their opponents. They like to just go out and compete and they enjoy fighting for each win.'

Peterson and Brymer will play their third straight season of doubles together. The pair has advanced to the NCAA Doubles Tournament the past two seasons and is expected to do so once again. They are ranked No. 10 in the preseason polls.

Gallien played Magnani and Loyola together in the fall and seems to have found a doubles pair capable of playing at No. 2. They reached the quarterfinals of the ITA Regionals and earned a No. 24 preseason ranking.

Brymer, Diaz and Esmero will fill the vacant spots at No. 3.

'The bottom line is that we have plenty of talent and plenty of speed... all the attributes that you need to compete with the very best,' said Gallien.

And, as is always the case, USC constantly will be tested throughout the year against Pac-10 opponents. As a conference, Pac-10 teams made up six of the nation's top 20 preseason teams. But the 2002 Women of Troy are fully prepared for the challenges the season will present.

'Our most important strength this season is our team unity and our team spirit,' said Gallien. ' Last year at the NCAAs we managed to beat a more talented and physical team in South Alabama solely because the players fought as a team to win. That's the most important characteristic any team can ever possess if they want to be successful and that is what makes these players confident about 2002.'

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