In coach Sheila McInerney’s 29 years at the helm of the ASU tennis team, there have been few teams that saw as much success as last year’s or that were as young as this year’s will be.
The All-American doubles team of Jacqueline Cako and Nicole Smith led the Sun Devils to 17 match wins last season, but with them having graduated after last season, ASU will be forced to rely on underclassmen.
McInerney realizes there may be some growing pains, but to her, that makes the season even more rewarding.
“With a younger team, you see more improvement as the year goes on,” McInerney said. “I think the freshmen have so much room to grow, and even the sophomores and two juniors. … I do think the improvement is going to be the exciting part.”
Even on last season’s experienced squad, she noticed her team making strides as the season progressed.
“I think Leighann (Sahagun) made some big strides as a freshman,” McInerney said. “She and Desirae (Krawczyk) made a good number two doubles team … so she’s definitely going to be called upon.”
Sahagun, along with Joanna Smith, will be the most experienced players on the roster this year as juniors. They will be joined by three returning sophomores and two incoming freshmen.
Cako, Smith and Hannah James are significant losses for ASU, but McInerney is excited about newcomers Gussie O’Sullivan and Kassidy Jump.
“(Jump) is a very good player. … She’s not super tall, but she hits a big ball,” McInerney said. “(O’Sullivan) is a really good athlete. I think she’s got a big upside (and) is just going to continue to get better.”
O’Sullivan will be the second Australian on the team, joining sophomore Ebony Panoho, while Jump hails from Granite Bay, Calif.
It’s now time for the younger players to step up if McInerney is to continue her streak of success at ASU. The Sun Devils haven’t finished a season below .500 since 2004 and have only done so twice in McInerney’s 29 years in Tempe.
She thinks they’ll be “hard-pressed” to win 17 matches again this season, but the goals are the same as always: make the NCAA Championships, but take it one day at a time.
There’s no doubting her excitement for the season. It’s not necessarily about how successful she expects her team to be, or how well they did last season. For McInerney, the passion of coaching is still alive and well in her 30th season.
She’s looking forward to getting practice started and seeing what she has in Jump and O’Sullivan, and what progress her returners have made in the offseason. With no seniors, McInerney knows there will be lots of instructing to do, but she’s confident it will pay off at the end of the season.
“We’re excited,” McInerney said. “We’ve got two freshmen in and three graduated. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
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