SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury University women's tennis team kicks off the season this weekend, and will look to get back to the Capital Athletic Conference championship match and take the next step, by claiming the program's first conference title in a dozen years.
The Sea Gulls feature five returners from its top six a year ago, and with a late addition to the roster, looking ahead to an exciting 2015.
At the top of the lineup, 16th-year Head Coach Randy Halfpap welcomes back junior Natalie Savage, who has been established as a leader on the court having taken over the No. 1 singles spot midway through her freshman year, and has built her reputation as a leader off the court.
"Her sophomore year, when she was a captain, was more of lead by example," Halfpap said. "She's learning now that she needs to be more vocal. Sometimes someone needs to be talked to, or you need to hear another voice other than the coaches, and her and (co-captain) Allison Lutz are both understanding that that's important."
Savage's play on the court has spoken for itself, going 13-6 in singles play last season, finishing with eight wins in her final 10 matches.
"Having her, being a captain, number one singles, number one doubles, she just goes out there and does her job," Halfpap said. "She does it with hard work and she can sit down, process things, and make adjustments based on what is working and what is not. I think she's a very good role model for the other players."
Part of Halfpap's challenge to start the 2015 season comes in figuring out where the rest of his lineup falls, including Savage's doubles partner.
Last year's No. 2 singles player, and Savage's partner in doubles, Roxanne Alban, graduated in December with a year of eligibility remaining and left the Sea Gulls with a gap. And while the natural choice might be senior Katie Youlios, who played primarily at No. 3 singles and teamed with Savage for a match at No. 1 doubles, Halfpap will look throughout his lineup for the best fit, but has no worries about Savage's reaction.
"She'll be open to whoever we suggest and who she tries out with," Halfpap said. "You've got to see what works, so sometimes there are some growing pains. On paper, Katie might make the most sense, but other things play a factor and you want to make three good teams rather than one really good team and two others."
Youlios played at the No. 2 spot in three matches last season, winning all three, and went 6-6 at No. 3 singles. She sports a career singles record of 35-19, having played in every singles spot except No. 1. She had a 16-match winning streak during the 2012-13 season.
After a stellar sophomore year, Youlios dealt with injuries last season, and missed all of the fall season getting healthy to be ready for this season.
"She's healed and she's going to get her chance," Halfpap said. "She's mentioned that she wants to play one doubles and she's going to be the likely and obvious choice to step in and play with Natalie, and she'll be given a chance."
Lutz is a player that has worked hard for everything she has had in maroon and gold. As a freshman, the local product from Parkside High School was battling to play in the starting lineup, and found a spot at No. 6, but as a sophomore was on the edge, playing in only half of the team's matches, despite a 9-0 record.
"People who deal with that, and deal with injuries usually have a different perspective of 'Wow, it can be taken away so fast,' rather than somebody who plays from the beginning," Halfpap said. "She's got some experience with that, and I know she's definitely excited to put the past three years together and turn in a good senior year."
Lohn was thrust into the lineup last season, as a freshman, playing mainly at No. 4 and 5 singles, coming up with a season mark of 9-11, but went 4-2 in Capital Athletic Conference play.
"She got to play a significant amount of time and for her it was experience and playing matches," Halfpap said. "There were definitely some matches where it wasn't her. She was practicing all week, and she would play differently than the way she was practicing. It's just getting that confidence to go out there and play that match. Having that year under her belt is important."
Walker was a pleasant addition for the Sea Gulls as the fall semester progressed. Coming from Scotland, she had been in touch with Halfpap about possibly working out with the team, and considering playing, but there were still questions until just before the spring semester as to whether she would be eligible. Walker worked to complete her paperwork and was on the roster as the team began practice in late January.
"She's going to be a unique and pleasant addition," Halfpap said. "It's going to make the year that much more interesting, going to California, or Frostburg with someone from Scotland. We'll be able to see all of these places through the eyes of someone that's never been there before."
Babo competed in 18 of the team's 20 matches last season, while Knapp appeared in seven, but will be pushed by the newcomers for time in 2015.
Soderlund brings strong juniors experience, while Cole has shown great improvement since the fall, and each player will battle to be the next to crack the starting lineup.
The season opens on Sunday, February 8, when the Sea Gulls will face two Division I opponents in the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Towson University before next week's Sea Gull Open.
Salisbury gets into the bulk of its Division III slate following that, with key non-conference matches against Millsaps College (Feb. 28) and Haverford College (March 7) before hitting the west coast swing during spring break.
Salisbury will face an ever-improving CAC schedule, including No. 22 University of Mary Washington and Christopher Newport University.
The CAC schedule culminates with the conference tournament in late April, as the Sea Gulls hope to hoist the championship plaque for the third time in program history.