Hansen: Wildcats, Maes succeeding in ultra-competitive Pac-12

2014-04-24T00:00:00Z Hansen: Wildcats, Maes succeeding in ultra-competitive Pac-12Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

If you had a vote in the Pac-12 women’s tennis Coach of the Year balloting, why wouldn’t you vote for Arizona’s Vicky Maes?

The Wildcats went 14-0 at home, climbed to No. 23 in this week’s poll and are 17-5 overall.

Not bad for a team selected No. 73 in the ITA preseason poll, one spot ahead of the Elon Phoenix.

It won’t happen. Arizona has never had the Pac-12 or Pac-10 women’s tennis Coach of the Year. Not in 27 years of competition.

The Wildcats’ Becky Bell should’ve been the Pac-10 Coach of the Year in 1996 as Arizona rose to No. 3 in the nation behind the NCAA’s No. 1 singles player, Vicky Maes. (Yes, that Vicky Maes.)

But it didn’t happen because Maes injured her shoulder, and Arizona exited in the national quarterfinals at the same time Stanford went 25-2, and Frank Brennan won the fifth of his eight conference Coach of the Year awards.

Pac-12 women’s tennis is a lot like trying to make the Ivy League All-Academic team.

Stanford is the nation’s top tennis school, a step ahead of UCLA and USC, but this year, out of nowhere, Cal went 10-0 in the Pac-12, and Golden Bears coach Amanda Augustus is likely to make Arizona 0 for 28 in conference Coach of the Year voting.

“I’m not happy where we’re at, but it’s not like we’re getting killed by these teams,” says Maes, who is almost surely the top women’s tennis player in UA history. “Look up the rankings; these are powerhouse schools.”

UCLA is ranked No. 1 by the ITA, and the Bruins couldn’t even win the Pac-12 title. Of the ITA’s top 34 singles players, 12 are from the Pac-12.

It’s like trying to win the heavyweight boxing title against Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.

Nevertheless, Arizona’s 6-4 conference finish, fifth place in the Pac-12, wasn’t unappreciated. Before the Wildcats labored to beat rival Arizona State in an epic four-hour match Saturday, Maes choked up during the Senior Day ceremony.

Her four seniors — Lacey Smyth, Kim Stubbe, Susan Mc Rann and Akilah James — repaid the feeling, later dousing Maes with a full-on Gatorade shower at Robson Tennis Center.

On Tuesday, Maes wouldn’t bite when asked about the feel-good wrap to the regular season.

“Our season is still going on,” she said. “We’ve had some highlights, but it’s still all out there for us, the Pac-12 meet and the NCAAs.”

Tennis is unlike any other Pac-12 sport because it is dominated by foreign players. The UA’s regular lineup includes players from Ireland, England, Holland and Belgium. Cal won the league title behind players from Estonia, Hungary, France and the Czech Republic.

“You don’t go out and get a local miracle guy like Sean Elliott to turn your whole program around,” said Jim Rosborough, a former UA assistant basketball coach who has been on Maes’ staff for five seasons. “The few elite American players usually end up at Stanford or one of the L.A. schools.”

Tucson has produced 10 state singles champions in the 27 seasons of Pac-12 women’s tennis. The best, Salpointe’s Kendra Strohm, to Texas, and the Lancers’ Anita Loyola, to USC, had good but not star-level college careers.

The others scattered to lesser-known tennis schools: Rita Bermudez to Idaho; Zaina Sufi to DePaul; Sara Brown to Boise State; Courtney Amos to Yale.

Of Tucson’s 10 state champs, only CDO’s Banni Redhair played at Arizona (1988-92). It remains uncertain if Arizona’s leading age-group female tennis player, Tucson’s Maddie Pothoff, who is 16, will even play college tennis.

Pothoff, a potential difference-maker, has been playing a national schedule for five years, much like former Tucsonan Meghann Shaughnessy, who skipped college tennis and earned $3.9 million on the WTA Tour until retiring recently.

Meanwhile, you are in a conference with Stanford, which has won 17 NCAA championships since 1982. So you go to Plan B.

Maes, who grew up in Belgium and played internationally for two seasons before enrolling at Arizona in 1994, has begun restocking Arizona’s roster, adding players from Germany and Canada for 2014-15. She spends part of the off-season as a tennis instructor in Michigan, the rest recruiting globally. Last year, she was in France and Holland.

“We’ve had some good tennis players in Tucson, but I’ve not seen one who can hold her own in the Pac-12,” said Maes. “To play at this level requires a full commitment and a lot of time and money. You’ve got to play all around the United States. There aren’t a lot of those available to us.”

So Maes does what she can on a limited budget and with facilities marginal, at best, among power conference tennis programs.

Finishing in the upper division of the Pac-12, moving into the Top 25, knocking off ASU and going undefeated at home is Coach of the Year territory at most schools.

At Arizona, it just keeps you in the hunt.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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