In a sport laced with head cases, narcissists and finger-pointers, a little altruism can be more difficult to find than a scholarship.
So the stories behind regular-season Big West Conference titles for the UC Irvine women’s and men’s teams this spring are as refreshing as a properly chilled elixir of electrolytes.
Anteaters women’s coach Mike Edles said goodbye to productive seniors Courtney Byron, Hannah Holladay and Stephanie Hammel last season only to field a roster that included seven underclassmen and one senior.
UCI men’s coach Trevor Kronemann bid adieu to All-Big West Conference seniors Sam Gould and Fabian Matthews, and was left with no seniors to welcome in a windfall recruiting class of six freshmen he dubbed the SoCal Six.
But the UCI women have flourished, posting a 20-3 record that includes an 18-match winning streak and a perfect Big West record heading into the conference tournament, in which it debuts Friday at Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
The UCI men held strong through the hazing ritual that Kronemann annually provides by stacking his nonconference schedule, to salvage six wins in their last seven matches after a 3-15 start.
Both teams claimed Big West regular-season titles, though the men shared theirs with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. And both are seeded No. 1 in the conference tournament, the winner of which earns an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
A third trip to the NCAA Tournament in Edles’ 17 seasons is imminent, he said, as his team’s pristine record and No. 31 ranking are sure to meet the most demanding standard for at-large consideration, should it fail to collect the automatic berth. The Anteaters’ No. 23 ranking earlier this season is the best in the program’s history as it aims to produce the school’s first NCAA Tournament triumph.
And the reason for this year’s success has an underlying theme that is creating more buzz around the women’s program than any barrage of passing shots could.
“It’s always easy to find good tennis players,” said Edles, a former UCI All-American on the 1977 NCAA Division II championship team. “But it’s hard to find good tennis players that are team players.”
Edles said his group, led by senior No. 1 singles standout Kristina Smith and supplemented by overachieving freshmen Sarah Gong and Sarah Stadfelt, has embraced the art of alliance as few tennis squads can.
“I think players are attracted to our school, the academics and the location,” Edles said. “But in terms of our team, it’s the chemistry. Relationships are a priority for us and I think players are attracted to being with a group of teammates with which they can get along. Tennis is a lonely sport, so it’s good to be in a situation where everybody has each other’s back.”
Smith is, perhaps, the easiest to cheer for. A virtual lock for Big West Player of the Year honors, the ‘Eaters’ No. 1 singles and doubles player was unbeaten in conference singles play, 18-3 in singles in dual matches, and has won her last 15 singles matches in dual competition.
“She stands a very good chance of making the NCAA individual championships in singles,” said Edles, who noted that Smith has been motivated for four years to make the NCAA individuals, as her mother, the then-Maria Myers, did while representing UCI in the mid-1980s.
Edles said the consistent success of Smith, who teams with junior Franziska Goettsching in doubles, along with winning the doubles point 17 times this season, has been key. Points in dual matches are awarded for each singles victory, as well as to the team that wins two of three doubles sets.
The UCI women, aiming for their 10th Big West Tournament final appearance in the last 14 seasons, take on No. 8-seeded Pacific in the quarterfinals on Friday at 8 a.m. The semifinals are set for Saturday at 9 a.m., with the final scheduled Sunday at 9 a.m.
Two more wins would be a school single-season record for Edles’ Anteaters.
Long Beach State has won eight of the last nine Big West women’s tournament titles, all at Indian Wells.
The UCI men (9-16) will face UC Santa Barbara in one semifinal on Friday at 3 p.m. If victorious, they would face either Cal Poly or Pacific in the final Sunday at 9 a.m.
The Anteaters have benefited from a freshman group that grew up traveling together for junior tournaments since long before they were teenagers.
“I went and surprised them at a junior event in Sacramento last summer and when I walked into the facility at lunchtime, the kids and their families were all eating together under a veranda,” Kronemann said. “The kids and their parents are all friends. It is really and truly a family.”
That has translated on the court for freshmen Tyler Pham, Jonathan Hammel, Caryl Hernandez, Justin Agbayani, Reo Asami and Jonathan Poon, as well as junior captain Ryan Cheung and 2012 Big West Freshman of the Year Jacob Jung, all of whom forged toughness through their early struggles.
Kronemann, a four-time All-American at UCI in the late 1980s now in his seventh season as head coach at his alma mater, said the season turned when he asked his players to commit to two practices a day during spring break, which led into their 4-3 upset at Cal Poly on April 5.
The team stayed for four days at a winery owned by the family of a player Kronemann coached at Cal Poly. The stay, along with the victory over the Mustangs, was a magical time, Kronemann said. The bonding that took place helped solidify the group that Kronemann believes, if it stays together, will lead UCI back into the top-20 status it had under then-coach Greg Patton in the 1980s.
“It gives me chills,” Kronemann said of his program’s future. “If we’re lucky enough to win this [Big West tournament] and go to the NCAAs, what a great picture we would paint for the future of UCI tennis.”