Women’s tennis serves up title contender

As the Women of Troy shift from the regular season to the Pac-12 singles and doubles championships, the women’s tennis program are considered to be legitimate contenders to win this year’s national championship.

In a sporting year filled with hard-luck losses from football, disappointing starts from the basketball program and a last-minute loss in the national championship game from men’s water polo, it’s now down to the spring sports to extend the Trojans’ unprecedented streak of winning championships.

The last time USC went without a team national championship was back in 2006, another season highlighted by an overtime loss in the water polo national championship. But for the first time since 1985, then led by seven-time national championship coach Dave Borelli, the women’s tennis program has the pieces in place to add a nice shiny trophy to the collection.

There has been plenty of success in recent memory coming from one tennis squad, as Peter Smith has powered the men’s program to championships in four of the past five years, including USC’s record 100th title last season.

Title No. 101 has been hard to find, but leave it to a squad that struggles to handle its own success to bring USC back on the championship stage.

The season has been filled with bumps and bruises along the way, yet a perfect mark in Pac-12 play speaks to the effective mix of veteran leadership and emergent freshmen making their presence felt on the service line.

The Women of Troy opened the season ranked 14th in the country, dropping their first match against No. 10-ranked Virginia, in the ITA National Team Indoor Championships featuring some of the best programs in the NCAA.

This program has responded, capping off an undefeated       Pac-12 slate (10-0) with a    come-from-behind win over 12th-ranked UCLA in dramatic fashion on Senior Day, avenging one of only three losses on the season.

The match came right down to the wire, featuring a freshman star in the making. That would be No. 78-ranked Madison Westby, who ended a nearly five-hour dog fight with an emphatic 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory. That was just one of the many gutsy performances from the Women of Troy on the singles court, pushing five of the six singles matches to the full three-set allotment.

USC was trailing 3-1, a score that would require three-straight wins on the singles court to survive, and the Women of Troy did just that to overcome the No. 5-ranked Bruins.

That’s the moment where the championship mantra shifted from just chatter to real matter for the Women of Troy.

“More than just being great tennis players, they have great hearts,” said senior Zoe Scandalis. “[And] It’s just super exciting to see where we are now going.”

USC has no player ranked higher than 13th overall, which happens to be Giuliana Olmos, who won the Pac-12 singles title last season, but you’d be hard pressed to find a squad as balanced.

All six starters are currently ranked inside the top 80 seeds in the country, and the starting lineup features three freshmen, two seniors and a talented sophomore, Zoe Katz, providing a unique mix of experience and youth for coach Richard Gallien.

For what they lack in top-ranked talent, USC is propelled by the captivating energy and bubbly personality of their fiery captain, Sabrina Santamaria, who enters her final postseason with pedigree as the 2013 NCAA doubles champion.

Add to the fact that most enthusiastic finisher, Olmos, has held down the fort with a 9-0 record in the No. 2 slot, and the Women of Troy have the makings of a battle tested one-two punch.

Then insert the talented freshmen trio of Gabby Smith, Madison Westby and Meredith Xepoleas, a two-time Pac-12 Player of the Week, and the Women of Troy have a lineup that plays tough on every court, even when they are not playing their best tennis during a given match.

The Women of Troy (21-2) have now reeled off wins in 17 of their last 18 matches entering the Pac-12 championships, where UCLA,

California and Stanford  remain serious threats. Not only have they won, they’ve found ways to grind out close contests: winning five of those matches in tight 4-3 fashion.

Despite not actually winning a national championship in recent memory, USC’s squad has taken their best shot at the title over the past two seasons.

Just last year, the 16th-seeded Trojans went into Athens, Georgia, the host site for NCAA’s, and took top-seeded Georgia down to the wire, losing 4-3 as Scandalis was bested in a thrilling 5-7, 6-1, 7-6 (5) match to decide the winner.

That eventual loss, which Scandalis places firmly on her shoulders, remains a motivational tool for her final run at the tournament coming up next month.

“Oh totally,” Scandalis said, watching the men’s team win four of the last five national championships. “And then everyday we see the number of championships [they’ve won], and it’s definitely a reminder.”

But during those final moments, USC also learned a great deal from watching men’s tennis play against massive expectations to win the national title as the top seed.

While USC has plenty of chances to win No. 101 in a variety of spring sports, the most entertaining team on the circuit has the best chance of pulling off another dramatic postseason run in the 64-team tournament.

The Women of Troy might  just catch the collegiate tennis world by surprise, as long as that doesn’t involve physically catching the crown.