John Tsumas wasn't sure what he'd end up with. College tennis coaches don't typically build a team around local players. Nor do they normally mix up what already matches. Tsumas, however, did both.
The outcome is that the Utah women's tennis coach has a nationally ranked team , a respectable record and a shot at making the NCAA's Final 20 for the first time.All this from players who were opponents more often than partners up until this year. And from players, in most cases anyway, who can call home for a quarter.
This is a team that nearly beat No. 3 ranked UCLA (5-4) and No. 16 BYU (5-4), and that has beaten No. 13 ranked Tennessee (5-4) and No. 22 ranked S. Carolina (5-4).
This is a team that was ranked No. 20, is ranked No. 24, and in light of recent matches will likely make it back into the Top 20, which is an automatic invite to the NCAA finals.
"Which is our goal this year," said Tsumas, who is in his third year of coaching at Utah. "We wanted to beat some nationally ranked teams, which we've done, and we want to make the NCAAs. I think we will. This is a good team."
Made better, he admitted, by some early-season shuffling. Faced with pairing his team for doubles, Tsumas backed out of old match-ups, one in particular that was invited to the NCAAs last year, and opted for all-new pairings.
That resulted in even better doubles team. One in particular, he said, will likely be ranked in the Top 10 in collegiate tennis.
Tsumas has eight players on his roster. Five were locally schooled and trained - Alison Bradford (Skyline), Julie Kempin (Brighton), Ruth Ann Stevens (Brighton), Stephanie Ball (Alta) and Lisa Paal (Judge Memorial).
Filling in are Susie Costa (Las Vegas), Sharla Barone (Des Plaines, Ill.) and Becky Huereque (Alta Loma, Calif.)
Bradford transferred back to Utah from Midland Junior College, where she was No. 6 in singles and No. 2 in doubles in JC rankings, to play No. 1 for the Utes. She is a strong player with an exceptionally powerful backhand.
Kempin, one of two seniors, plays No. 2 for Utah. She is an aggressive player with a big forehand and an attacking style.
At Nos. 3 through 5, said Tsumas, three players are shuffled around. Stevens is recognized as having one of the best volleys in college tennis to go with her serve and volley style; Costa is a steady player known for her patience, lack of unforced errors and deep returns; and Barone is known for her quickness, big service and strong net game.
Ball, who had the best record on the team last year, plays No. 6. She is a baseline player and is one of the most consistent players on the team.
Huereque is a freshman with a strong serve and volley game, and Paal is a sophomore who known for her quickness and strong forehand.
Strongest part of the Utah game, however, is its doubles.
Bradford and Stevens play No. 1 doubles and, said Tsumas, should break into the Top 10. Their record is 17-5 with several wins over nationally ranked doubles teams.
Costa and Barone play No. 2 and are 9-2, while Kempin and Huereque play No. 3 and are 7-3.
"It's hard to get good doubles teams. We switched around a lot before we came up with the teams we have. I just felt at the beginning of the year that there were better combinations.
"I don't think you can have a successful program without good doubles, though. We're solid at (Nos) 1 through 6 in singles, but definitely, we're better at doubles."
The Utes will leave this week for an important swing through Texas and Oklahoma. A couple of good wins there, said Tsumas, would almost guarantee Utah of a Top 20 finish and an invitation to the NCAA.
And, as Tsumas admitted, "Recognition that Utah has a pretty strong women's tennis program."