Linda Howell stood at the baseline during a recent San Diego State tennis practice, bounced the ball deliberately as she prepared to serve--and delivered a running commentary.
“Linda Howell, ready to unleash that powerful serve here on this most important point,” said the Aztecs’ No. 1 player. “Oh, and it’s a booming service and she follows it into the net . . . and what a miraculous passing shot. You won’t see that very often.”
“Routine,” smiled SDSU’s No. 2 player, Cinny MacGregor as her forehand shot whizzed by Howell.
On an adjacent court, No. 3 player Cathy Berry was pounding backhands. After watching four shots in a row sail long, Berry might have been in the mood to throw her racket. Instead, she laughed.
Having fun and staying loose is nothing new for the Aztecs, a spirited bunch that is the seventh-seeded team in this week’s NCAA tournament at Stillwater, Okla.
“It’s really lovely that we all get along so well,” said Berry, a junior from Yorkshire, England, who makes one think of grand old Wimbledon itself with an accent worthy of the Queen. “One of the reasons this team has been so successful is that we can have fun while playing good tennis.”
And San Diego State has been very good in recent years. In 1982 and 1983, it won first-round matches before being eliminated in the NCAA quarterfinals.
The Aztecs made it all the way to the final four last year before being beaten by eventual champion Stanford. SDSU finished 25-8 this season and will begin its bid for this year’s national title Thursday against Northwestern.
“Their team really does have a tremendous spirit,” said Frank Brennan, coach of one of SDSU’s biggest rivals, Stanford. “They have more spirit than any team I’ve seen. It always allows them to win maybe one more match than they should against you.”
But to be so successful, a team can’t have too much fun, can it?
“These guys really look serious today, don’t they?” Carol Plunkett, the Aztecs’ coach, said during one of the team’s final practices before leaving for Stillwater. “We’re going to have to get going pretty soon.”
But not just yet.
Plunkett, in her ninth year at SDSU, knows her team doesn’t have the talent of a Stanford or USC, another conference nemesis. But she thinks spirit can make up for what the Aztecs lack in talent.
“We’ve been extremely fortunate to get talented players who can perform well as a team,” Plunkett said. “These kids view this as a team sport instead of taking everything individually.”
When Plunkett first took over in 1977, the Aztecs were coming off a mediocre season. After one rebuilding year, the SDSU program took off thanks to the play of Kim Jones, who received All-American honors in 1978 and 1979.
“We really got lucky that we had a local player like Kim who wanted to stay home to play collegiately,” Plunkett said. “She provided all of the other players with the hope that the team could do well.”
After Jones finished her career, Plunkett recruited Micki Schillig from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Schillig became SDSU’s all-time career match winner with 105. Schillig also reached the finals of the first-ever NCAA individual women’s championship in 1982 before losing in three sets to Alycia Moulton of Stanford.
“Micki didn’t have that high of a ranking when I recruited her,” Plunkett said, “but that’s not the only thing I look for. I like to look at a player’s record to see how they’ve been playing lately and also look at the potential they may have to be successful.”
Howell was one of those types of players. Not a highly-ranked junior player, Howell came to SDSU in 1982 but played only sparingly because of injuries her first two seasons.
Then, after a mediocre 1984 season, Howell gained a spot on the U.S. Federation Cup team last summer--thanks in part to Plunkett--and it turned her game around. This season, Howell put together a 13-match winning streak in which she won 26 of 29 sets. Howell also played well in the recent Virginia Slims of San Diego tournament and will be competing at Wimbledon this summer.
“Miss Plunkett has always supported all of us a lot,” Howell said. “She taught us that conditioning was a key factor to us playing well. We’re one of the few teams that do a lot of conditioning and that helps us.”
Despite the dedication to physical fitness, SDSU was hit by injuries late in the season and injuries to Howell (shoulder) and Berry (broken left wrist) could hurt the team’s chances in Stillwater.
Both Howell and Berry are expected to play, however.
“There’s no way I’m going to miss the NCAAs,” Howell said.