Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 18
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
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TOUGH SELL: Princeton University women’s tennis head coach Kathy Sell surveys the action during a match this season. Sell guided the Tigers to the Ivy League title this spring. This Friday, the 42nd-ranked Tigers, now 18-7 overall and 6-1 in Ivy play, will head down to Miami where they will take on 29th-ranked Florida International University in the opening round of the NCAAs.

Heading South for NCAA Tournament Opener, PU Women’s Tennis Hopes to Raise Its Game

Bill Alden

It was not the way the Princeton University women’s tennis team wanted to start the final month of the regular season.

After blanking Penn 7-0 in its Ivy League opener in late March, Princeton began April with a 4-3 loss to Yale.

Although disappointed by the result, Princeton head coach Kathy Sell saw the loss as a chance to clear the air.

“It made us look hard at ourselves and what are we doing wrong,” said Sell, reflecting on the setback.

“We had some honest discussions. Pepe [assistant coach Pepe Caballero] and I made a list of four or five things that had been frustrating us but hadn’t been brought up because we were winning. We needed to be aggressive to be better. We wanted them to stop sitting back and waiting for things to happen.”

Princeton made a lot of good things happen the rest of April, winning its last five matches to earn the Ivy League title and make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000.

This Friday, the 42nd-ranked Tigers, now 18-7 overall and 6-1 in Ivy play, will head down to Miami where they will take on 29th-ranked Florida International University in the opening round of the NCAAs with the winner likely to face 6th-ranked Miami, which plays Army in its tourney opener.

Sell, a former tennis All-American at Duke who is in her fifth season guiding the Tigers, had figured that the program wouldn’t have to wait so long to get back into the NCAA tournament.

“When I started here I thought it would happen sooner, I was frustrated,” said Sell. “It was partly because I was a young coach and naïve about some things. It seems right and appropriate that Princeton is playing in May.”

Coming into the spring, Sell felt that she had the right mix of players to make a run at the Ivy title.

“We had pretty high expectations, we had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country last year,” said Sell.

“But we were not translating that into focus on outcome. We focus on maintaining high standards everyday and the outcome will take care of itself.”

The freshman trio of Lauren McHale, Hilary Bartlett, and Rachel Saiontz has established standards in their debut season.

McHale was selected as the Ivy League Rookie of the Year and was named first-team All-Ivy. Bartlett also garnered first-team All-Ivy recognition while Saiontz was a second-team choice.

“They were so fired up, two of the three had played 35 matches last summer,” said Sell, referring to her freshmen standouts.

“They were winning matches in the fall and challenging the upperclassmen. They fit in culturally as well. Any time you have more talent, everyone has to reevaluate their role.”

Junior star Melissa Saiontz, a key player in the recent success of the program, showed class in seeing her role change from No. 1 singles to the third spot and still making second-team All-Ivy.

“Melissa put us on the map, getting her definitely helped attract others,” said Sell of Saiontz, a highly ranked junior player and older sister of freshman star, Rachel.

“Melissa was No. 1 for two years and now she is fighting to keep in the top of the lineup. She had to reassess things and be more focused on the team. She is the only upperclassman in the starting lineup. She is really super fit.”

In Sell’s view, Princeton is fit to play its best tennis of the season. “We played something like 12 matches in February, six in March, and six in April,” said Sell.

“We had some shorter matches in Ivy play but brought the right attitude. I think we are in a position to peak in May.”

While the Tigers took some lumps in some of those earlier matches, falling to such national powers as Baylor, Duke, and Stanford, Sell thought the experience would benefit her players later in the spring.

“My approach is to play the toughest schedule possible, you can’t predict when you will get results but you are going to get wins in the end,” said Sell. “I feel this should help us in the NCAAs, we have faced a lot of big-time teams.”

With her NCAA experience, which includes playing in the team championship final as a freshman at Duke, Sell knows the big-time pressure her players will be facing in the national tournament.

“I told them to think of how intense the Ivy League is and multiply that by 10,” said Sell, who shared Duke’s Athlete of the Year award in 2001 with basketball All-American and current NBA star Shane Battier.

“Pepe and I have had a lot of NCAA experience but not one of us has represented Princeton or the Princeton community in the tournament. This is an unbelievable opportunity. We want them to do the best they can and represent the program well.”

Sell, for her part, aims to have the Princeton program getting the opportunity to play in May on an annual basis.

“I want it to become normal for them to be playing in May,” asserted Sell.

“They need to make a decision about representing the school. They need to go down there and focus on tennis and just embrace the moment.”

If the Tigers can keep playing like they did in April, they could produce some special moments in May.

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