Cal's women's tennis team lost to Stanford last weekend, but the Bears are still ranked No. 1 in the country heading into the Pac-12 championships that started Wednesday in Ojai.
Of course, No. 1 in the country doesn't necessarily mean No. 1 in the league. The Bears (19-1, 7-1 Pac-12) cannot win the conference team title. USC (12-4, 7-0) and Stanford (13-5, 7-1) were to settle that in a special dual match Wednesday. The winner gets the title and the automatic NCAA bid based on best league record.
Cal did beat USC in match in February that was a non-conference affair. The Bears and Trojans were rained out of their conference meeting, a cancellation that, along with the Stanford defeat, ruined Ca's title possibilities.
But that will be of little concern to the Bears, who are certain to get an at-large berth the NCAA meet and will be after singles and doubles glory at the conference meet, which, save for the playoff, does not include team competition on the women's side.
"That's the way it's been for 100 years," Cal head coach Amanda Augustus said this week. "It's a real honor to be a Pac-12 singles or doubles champion. I think it's a very special event…It's part of our planning for our season as we are setting up, so we are excited to go down there."
And the format is inclusive.
"There are two draws, so pretty much everyone on the team gets to compete, unlike a dual match where only six do," Augustus said. "So it's an opportunity for everybody. People are in different draws so typically we see a player round into form in either singles or doubles, which helps us as we get to the NCAA tournament.
"And oftentimes we might have a player qualify for NCAA singles or doubles based on a good performance at Ojai, where they might not have otherwise. Let's say they were playing a little lower in the lineup, and they were right on the bubble; it's their chance to play their way in."
The Bears' best chance for an individual title is probably in doubles, where the tandem of Maegan Manasse and Denise Starr is ranked No. 3 in the country.
"They started off the year really well, winning the All-American (tournament) in the fall," Augustus said. "When you become one of those top three or four teams in the country, every time someone comes out to play you, you have to be ready because the pressure is on you and not on your opponent usually. So I think they've learned to work through matches better. I think it's a little challenging given how short the sets of doubles are, but they've continued to work on their game. I think they have a real good shot at winning an NCAA championship in doubles."
But first they have to deal with the Pac-12 and they seem to be ready. Both juniors, they are long-time doubles partners. "We have been together for two and half years. I think it's important," Manasse said. "Denise and I have a very good relationship on and off the court. We have been playing together so long that we have such good communication on the court. We understand that if someone is poaching, where to cover. And, if one of us is down on themselves, how to pump them back up again. We really understand each other."
"I think we both try to be aggressive," Starr said. "We both have our strengths, and I don't want to say weaknesses but things we can do better. If I'm coming in I'll know that Meagan will cover me. Even though I'm taller (6-0 vs. 5-6), she'll cover me in the back. The communication we have really helps us figure that out."
And according to Augustus, communication on the doubles court is vital. "Knowing your partner is real important," she said. "In an ideal world you'd like to be able to keep players together when you find a combination that works. But sometimes one might get hurt, or someone might graduate. I think it's really nice, they're the same year in school, they like playing together. They're very successful. It's nice to see a successful partnership that was built over time while they were here."
Of course, it takes more than just being in synch with your partner. Ability helps, too. "I think their strengths are that they are both very athletic, they both like to be at the net and they both have very good serves and very good overheads," Augustus said. "They complement each other well."
Augustus of course knows a bit about playing doubles. As an undergrad she and partner Amy Jensen were two-time NCAA champs in 1998 and 1999. They were the doubles team selected to the Pac-12's All-Century team.
"I was excited and humbled," she said of the honor. "It's a pretty elite list of college women tennis players that's for sure. Amy and I were pretty successful here, those were the first NCAA tennis championships that Cal ever won. I think that making history for Cal and women's tennis has been a pretty big part of why I do what I do today. My experience here as an athlete, it's nice to see us recognized for that. Also Jana Juricova, whom I coached here 2009-2012) and recruited here was selected (All-Century), so that was exciting as well."
The Bears learn their matchups when the draw is announced Thursday. But the path will not be all that easy.
"There are a lot of good doubles teams in the conference," Augustus said. "There are three or four Pac-12 teams in the top 15.
"Maegan and Denise just played a great match with the Stanford team of (Taylor) Davidson and (Caroline) Doyle (Cal won, 6-4) and at the time they were three and four. That was outstanding tennis. USC's No. 1 doubles plays strong. UCLA's No. 1 doubles plays strong. It think it will be a great tournament down there."
Men's play at the Pac-12 Championships features team dual competition. Cal is seeded third and will open play on Thursday against the winner of Wednesday's Washington-Utah match.
UCLA is the men's top seed, USC is second and Stanford fourth.
The women's singles finals and doubles finals will be televised Sunday on Pac-12 Networks.
The conference tournament is part of the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament. It has been held at the Ojai Valley Athletic Club since 1896 with just a few interruptions. This is the 116thedition. It annually attracts 1,600 junior college, college and open players.