Some coaches wait for years for a shot at a national championship.
Not Tracy Lillig.
Less than six months after finishing her master’s degree at USC, Lillig is a winner in her first head coaching job, at Occidental College.
Lillig’s women’s tennis team is ranked No. 1 among Western Regional Division III schools and figures to be one of the top contenders for the NCAA national championship on May 13-17 in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“It’s been incredible. I’ve definitely lucked out,” said Lillig, who took over for Conrad Rassmussen, who returned to school. “It’s a great job to fall into.”
Not Much Experience
Even more amazing is that Lillig had never coached tennis and played only one year in college--on Occidental’s 1978 team that finished with a 3-12 record and was 0-10 in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
But what Lillig may lack in tennis background the team makes up for in talent.
The key to Oxy’s success is young talent Lillig inherited, including No. 1 player Sue Hulse, only a freshman.
The team returned five starters from last year’s 14-11 squad: juniors Kristin Carter, the No. 2 player, and Frannie Leon (No. 6) and sophomores Kiki Roe (No. 3), Kendal Junta (No. 4) and Harriet Wilcox (No. 5).
“Most of the players are sophomores that played as freshmen, so I took over a very strong team that also has a year of competition experience, which makes it nice,” said Lillig.
18-3 in Division III
Before Oxy’s SCIAC match against Whittier College on Wednesday, the lady Tigers were undefeated in Division III play with an 18-3 overall record. Included in the list of Division III victims is Colorado College, a strong Western Region team that defeated defending Division III champion UC San Diego this season.
The Tigers flexed their muscles again against defending SCIAC champion Pomona Pitzer last week. After slipping by Pitzer, 5-4, at Oxy in March, the visiting Tigers outlasted Pitzer again, 7-2, in what Lillig called “the most important match of the year.”
“To see them beat Pomona on their home court better than they beat them at home tells me we have the caliber to be divisional champs,” Lillig said.
But the match was closer than the score indicated.
Lillig considered Junta’s victory over Liz Watts, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, to be the deciding factor.
Down 0-4 in the second set after losing the first, Junta rallied to take the next six games to win the set and, eventually, the match.
‘Really Needed Win’
“We really needed Kendal’s win,” said Lillig. “If she lost, we would have gone into doubles play at 3-3. If you go into doubles at 3-3, the other teams have a shot at beating you.”
Coaching is Lillig’s second career. After earning a degree in economics from Occidental in 1981, she worked in pharmaceutical sales for three years before returning to school two years ago.
“After doing the sales job, I realized I didn’t want to be in business the rest of my life. The thing I wanted to do was teach and coach, so I changed everything,” said Lillig, a two-time All-SCIAC basketball player and all-conference cross-country runner at Occidental.
Lillig has also been the assistant coach for the Occidental women’s basketball team for two years.
Now she is eager to put what she learned in the classroom into practice with her squad.
“They needed leadership,” Lillig said. “They needed someone who’s going to be there every day and motivate them and condition them. They have all this talent; they just need a bit of polishing. I think they’re getting it.
“They’re much more of a team this year. Sure, they are individuals, you can’t get past that in an individual sport, but I’ve seen them come together as a team. That has helped. So instead of looking at it so narrowly, like ‘how’s this going to affect me’ . . . they have that team concept and win for the team’s sake.”
The biggest obstacle Lillig had to face was fitting the young Hulse into the squad--Lillig did not know how the other players would react to a freshman playing in front of them.
“I anticipated a lot of problems,” Lillig said. “What’s different is that so many of the girls are used to playing No. 2, 3 and 4 and are now playing 4, 5 and 6 and are having to play at a lot lower level and accept that.”
Carter had to adjust to playing behind Hulse, a two-time CIF Small School runner-up at Westlake School in Holmby Hills.
Carter, Oxy’s No. 1 player last year, was the NCAA runner-up in 1985. But Hulse beat her in three of four close, three-set challenge matches to claim the top position on the team this season.
“I actually wanted Kristin to beat Sue to keep everything the same without any problems,” Lillig admitted. “Since Sue was the freshman, I thought it would be easier for her to play No. 2 and Kristin to play No. 1. But Sue beat her outright.
“Kristin has taken it amazingly well. She’s just an exceptional person. She’s got a great attitude--not that it was easy on her--she just accepted it and played great at No. 2.”
The addition of Hulse has made the difference, Lillig said.
Since the change in command, Hulse is 14-5 in match play, Carter 14-2. Both are 10-0 in SCIAC singles, and as a doubles team the Hulse-Carter combination is 13-2.
If Hulse and Carter continue to win, they could possibly play each other in the SCIAC finals on May 2-3 or for the NCAA championship.
“Sue’s very steady and not easily rattled. She just gets out there and is super confident,” Lillig said.
“It’s really funny. In many ways, Sue and Kristin are exactly the same type of player--they’re not emotional on the court and they’re steady and don’t get flustered. They actually look bored because they’re so totally relaxed.
“Sue’s just a little more aggressive than Kristin. That’s what I think gives her the edge.”
‘Match-Tough’ Is Tough
Said Carter: “Since we’ve played against each other so much, we’ve probably shown each other what our weaknesses are. It’s like looking in the mirror when you play.”
The Tigers and Lillig have had to contend with a demanding schedule. Since late-March, Occidental has played three matches a week.
“It’s hard to psych up three times a week. Our problem has been getting match-tough,” Lillig said. “Coming out match after match after match has been tough.”
The young Oxy coach likes her team’s chances to capture the national crown.
“I think we should win the national championship,” Lillig said. “I know that sounds cocky and boastful, but I think we have all the talent in the world to win it.”
Lillig isn’t alone.
“I’ve been to the nationals two years, so I’ve seen the caliber of teams that have won it and I feel strongly that if we play well and don’t get burned out, we can win,” Carter said.
Former Coach Lynn Pacala, who led the Tigers to their first national championship in 1982, also has high hopes.
“This is probably the best team we’ve ever had,” said Pacala, now Oxy tennis coordinator. “In the years my teams won the national championship, we had a great No. 1 player and the rest of the team was good. Now because both Kristin and Sue are so good, it makes the team even better.”
Lillig has high expectations:
“I don’t think we’ll ever lose in league until they all graduate. As long as they remain motivated, they will be in the top bracket for the next three years.”
Although Lillig is a rookie coach, she already has the outlook of a veteran.