When the West comes South
Four teams represent Pac-12 in national quarterfinals
ATHENS, Ga. -- About halfway through the first day of the NCAA women's tennis championships Thursday, Richard Gallien came up with an idea, a brainstorm that might help the Pac-12 return to the days when the conference always stomped the nation.
The USC coach was smiling after his squad beat Baylor 4-1, but not relishing what's next.
Come noon Saturday at Georgia's Dan McGill Tennis Complex, the the fifth-seeded Trojans (23-3) will play No. 4 Stanford (21-1) in the national quarterfinals. Fellow Pac-12 rivals UCLA (24-2) and Cal (20-6) will meet simultaneously in another quarter.
Having already dropped a match to the Cardinal this season, Gallien has visions. Or maybe they're nightmares.
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“I think they should re-draw [the brackets]; what do they have against the Pac-12?” Gallien said. “Stanford in my opinion, is the best team in the country. I'm not saying that to be all Lou Holtz.
“When they were healthy early in the year, they beat the pants off [defending champion and No. 2 seed] Florida [by a 5-2 score]. They're pretty much healthy again, and it's going to be a big challenge for us.”
It would take a lot of re-drawing to keep Pac-12 schools away from each other. Four of them made it to the third round, and all of them won Thursday. The Pac-12 is sending up half of the final eight teams, and that's not exactly news.
Stanford's 2010 title -- won here, in Athens – and UCLA in 2008 have given the Pac-12 (then Pac-10) two of the past five national titles, and that constitutes a drought!
PAC 12 schools have won 19 of 30 women's team titles, including the first 10 beginning in 1982. The national runner-up has been a PAC program 15 times. Seven times, the championship match has pitted one PAC school against another.
That won't happen in Tuesday's title match; all four schools from the conference are on the same side of the bracket. Saturday's winners play each other Monday for a berth in the finale opposite a non-PAC 12 team.
Who better than Stanford coach Lele Forood – who has piloted the Cardinal to six of their whopping 16 national titles – to explain what has made the PAC so tough at tennis (USC, by the way, has won three consecutive men's team titles and leads the nation with 19 all-time followed by PAC 12 foes Stanford, 17, and UCLA, 16).
“I think we draw ... Californians and each of the schools draws well from around the country, and in Cal's case more around the world,” Forood said after Stanford beat Northwestern 4-1. “The teams are always good. ... I think the kids gravitate toward playing in such a strong conference, and a lot of people want to be in California.”
Cal, which beat 2007 champion Georgia Tech 4-0 on Thursday, employs a different approach than Stanford, UCLA, and USC.
The Bears of coach Amanda Augustus deployed just one player from the U.S. Thursday in No. 4 singles player Tayler Davis, of San Jose.
Defending singles national champion Jana Juricova, who plays at No. 1, is from the Slovak Republic. Freshman Zsofi Susanyi (at No. 2) is from Hungary, and the other Bears to take the court Thursday were from Estonia (Anett Schutting), Sweden (Annie Goransson), Paris, France (Alice Duranteau), and Helsinki, Finland (doubles player Cecilia Estlander).
By contrast, USC suited up just one player not from California. Junior Valeria Pulido is from Mexico. “USC has a lot of history with Mexican players doing really well,” she said of her decision to be a Trojan. “The academics are really good, and my parents really liked Richard and I really liked him. He's sort of like a father.”
Generally speaking, Forood said, “We always like to say no California kids are going to the Southeast to go to college.”
Schools in this the Southeast have made inroads with Florida winning five national titles (second most), Georgia and Texas two each, and Duke and Georgia Tech one each in the past 20 years.
Forood and her Pac-12 coaching colleagues have been largely successful in preventing Californians from heading to the Southeast.
Among the rosters of Tech, Georgia, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina among the third round teams, there are only two Californians – the Tar Heels' Zoe DeBruycker (ranked No. 38 in the nation) and senior doubles standout Haley Hemm.
When girls from the Golden State want to go east or south, they apparently don't want to go all the way to the SEC or ACC. Among teams who made the trip to Georgia, Texas has three girls from California, and Baylor two.
“In the past, with all the good weather, all the best kids in the country wanted to go West,” Gallien said. “Programs like Florida and Georgia, about 20 years ago said, 'Let's do tennis and do it really well.' Duke has a really nice facility indoors, Northwestern has come along.”
Westward migration remains a trend.
UCLA ran players from New Jersey, Maryland, Miami, and Bradenton, Fla., onto the courts Thursday to beat Rice 4-0, and Stanford used players from New Jersey, Florida and Georgia (junior Mallory Burdette of Jackson, which is about 80 miles from UCLA).
Stanford sophomore Nicole Gibbs, a native of Santa Monica who is ranked No. 3, wasn't drawn to Stanford because the Cardinal play such a good schedule. She just loved the school. It's not hard for her to see why, however, that tennis is so strong out west.
Shortly before the clouds rolled in and the wind picked upThursday afternoon, Gibbs pontificated. “I think California is one of the major tennis hubs, and it's kind of funneled into all West Coast schools,” she said.
“I was pretty naïve . . . I didn't know a lot about the conferences and who was on other teams,” she said. “I think the weather is a big part of it, not moving indoors every day with rain and stuff like that. I think it's mostly a product of the tennis culture on the West Coast.”
Indeed, not long after Gibbs spoke, umbrellas broke out and fans and players from the Texas and Georgia squads ran for cover as the skies opened up to postpone their match in Athens.
Forood summarized: “The schools in the Pac-12 are awesome, and a lot of people want to be in California. Weather is a big thing I'd say good coaching. We have a really good group of coaches in the Pac-12. We have a lot to offer with academics, great schedule and history."