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CSUN WOMEN’S TENNIS PREVIEW : Hasselo and Lady Matadors Brace for Run at the Division II Playoffs

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

It seems cruel, Tony Davila concedes, but he doesn’t blame the opposition for trying. He might even do the same thing.

You see a brace, you attack the person wearing it. That’s competitive sports, the Cal State Northridge women’s tennis coach says.

Therefore, when Davila sees a prospective player wearing a brace he normally moves on to the next recruit.

“It’s highly unusual for a person who has had major reconstructive knee surgery to get back to highly competitive tennis,” Davila said.

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Unusual, improbable, but not impossible. Davila has to look no further than his own team to find an example. And he doesn’t have to look very far down the ladder to find her name.

Caren Hasselo will play No. 2 singles for Northridge, which opens its season today in the Cal State Los Angeles Intercollegiate tournament.

Three years ago, Hasselo was a highly regarded junior player out of Carlsbad High when, during a doubles playoff match, her left knee bent north while the rest of her body was heading south.

Diagnosis: A shredded anterior cruciate ligament. Not strained or torn, but shredded.

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Her most vivid high school memory: Sitting in a doctor’s office “screaming and crying like my whole life had just ended.”

She was on crutches for 3 months but still managed to play tennis. “I’d stand out there on one crutch and volley,” Hasselo said.

After a year away from the sport, Hasselo played a season at Palomar College, then transferred to Grossmont College where, last season, she played No. 2 singles on a team that won the state junior college championship.

It was an impressive comeback but not a complete one. Hasselo’s game is still improving.

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“I still hold back but it’s becoming less and less,” Hasselo said. “Since I’ve come here to CSUN I’m training more and I’m seeing more results. My legs are getting stronger and I’m able to let loose more.”

Still, Hasselo is well-aware that collegians will see her brace and try to test her new-found agility with drop shots and lobs.

“Sometimes it works to my advantage,” Hasselo said of that tried-and-true strategy. “Those are some real hard shots to hit. If they try to get too tricky, they end up missing a lot.”

Davila is banking that Hasselo will force opponents to miss often, which is why she will start the season below only Allison Kincaid on CSUN’s ladder.

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Kincaid, a junior from El Camino Real High, could develop into one of the best players in Division II. Whether she does, Davila says, depends largely on her ability to retain her concentration for a whole season, or, for that matter, an entire match.

“I’ve seen her play absolutely brilliantly one set, then you watch her play the next set and wonder, “Did she play that first set right-handed and now she’s playing left-handed,’ ” Davila said.

“She can go as far as she wants to go. What it comes down to is that as a coach I can only do so much. Then it has to come from her.”

Ranked behind Kincaid and Hasselo are Brenda Patano, a junior who played for the Lady Matadors 2 seasons ago; Kaliko Yandall, a sophomore who played No. 5 singles last season; Suzie Izmirian, a senior; and Heather Miller, a sophomore transfer from Long Beach City College.

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Potentially, the squad could be Northridge’s best since its 1982 national championship team, Davila said.

“There are too many variables, things that can happen,” Davila said. But he has been encouraged by a team spirit that is developing.

“That’s a big step in the right direction,” Davila said. “All these kids would just as soon play their match and walk off the court because that’s the way they’ve been trained for the last 10 years in juniors. Now they have to depend on and help other people.

“It’s a slow process, but if everything comes together we could have a good thing here.”

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