SALISBURY, Md. – The Salisbury University women's tennis team begins the season on Saturday, February 13 with a small, yet experienced roster for the 2016 campaign.
The Sea Gulls will have a strong contingent of returners in senior Natalie Savage, junior Claudia Lohn, and sophomore Megan Soderlund. With a junior transfer Zoe Moffat expected to come in and battle for a spot at the top of the lineup, the Sea Gulls are primed for a big year.
The anchor to the squad this year will be Savage, who has been at the top of the lineup for the past three seasons. She has played No. 1 doubles in each of her previous three years and will spend her third full season at the top singles spot. Savage was 11-7 in singles last year and carries a career 43-15 mark in singles play into this year. At No. 1 doubles, she was 14-6 last year.
"The leadership and the stability is really nice," 17th-year Head Coach Randy Halfpap said of Savage. "You know exactly what you're going to get from her. That part of it is great and this year, it's nice to have a newcomer, in Zoe, that's going to push her. It's great for the two of them, having somebody at practice every day that's going to push you and make you better."
Savage, who enters the season ranked No. 17 in the Atlantic South Region, is a great example of how to handle everything that comes with the toughest spot in the lineup.
"She's a great person for the other players to see personality-wise and attitude-wise how you deal with a tough schedule," Halfpap said. "Obviously, in the number-one spot you have a tough match. There is no easy day for her and being the leader, she wants to help the team. But on top of that, she has individual goals and wants to go to the NCAA championships, so every match is a big deal."
With the departure of three members of the top six for 2015, the Sea Gulls will see some new faces in the lineup, and one of those new faces expected to make an immediate impact on the top end of the lineup is Moffat, a transfer from Surrey, England. The junior is not the first player from Europe to be part of the team, as Salisbury welcomed Scottish exchange student Charlotte Walker in 2015.
Walker was a mainstay in the Salisbury lineup last year. The pair played on the same team in Scotland, at the University of Sterling, and Moffat will benefit from Walker's Salisbury experience with more knowledge of what to expect.
"Charlotte was telling Zoe about who our rivals are and which matches are the most exciting on our schedule," Halfpap said. "She came in knowing more than Charlotte did the year before and so that part of it has been exciting. She's been nothing but a pleasant surprise for us and she's going to be a good player."
Heading into the year, Moffat has been tabbed as Savage's doubles partner at No. 1, and will likely factor into the singles lineup at No. 2.
Returners Lohn and Soderlund and newcomer Taylor Cooper are expected to vie for the spots in the middle of the singles lineup.
Lohn played No. 3 singles throughout the 2015 season, amassing a 11-9 overall singles record, while going 15-5 in doubles play. The addition of Moffat, will allow Lohn to remain at the No. 3 singles spot to begin the year, giving a level of familiarity and comfort.
"Last year she was adjusting to the position early and then she got some more confidence, she started playing a little bit better and playing some tough opponents really closely," Halfpap said. "Hopefully, now it's not a learning experience any longer. It's 'This is where I was last year, and I'm going to take the experience and apply it to this year.' She can go in knowing exactly what to expect and she can just play her best tennis."
Soderlund made an immediate impact last year as a freshman, with an 11-9 singles mark, primarily at No. 4, while posting a 15-5 doubles mark.
"The great thing about Megan with her attitude and style of play, she's very steady," Halfpap said. "As an inexperienced freshman coming in, you have certain expectations and she certainly had a great year for us, and she actually exceeded my expectations in regards to doubles. But this year, she's improved a lot from last spring and fall into this year."
Cooper enters her freshman year with high hopes and the experience of a successful fall with the team, including the trip to the ITA Regional Tournament where Cooper won two matches in her singles draw before pushing her semifinal match to three sets.
"Taylor is where Megan was last year," Halfpap said. "She was here in the fall and able to play at the ITA tournament, and was able to practice with the team. So she's starting to learn which teams we look forward to on the schedule, and what we need to do. I think she could potentially be the difference maker for our team. That's a lot to ask of a freshman, but she has the mentality and the game to get it done."
Senior Megan Knapp and sophomore Sage Cole are in position to step into the lineup on a regular basis for the first time in their careers. That doesn't mean they didn't see action, as Halfpap has always been a big believer in playing exhibition matches beyond the top six singles spots and top three doubles on any given day. Knapp and Cole each earned experience with those opportunities in the past.
Knapp officially competed in three matches last year, with a 3-0 record in singles play and 2-0 in doubles, and is an outstanding vocal leader for the Sea Gulls as one of just two seniors on the roster.
"Megan's personality and attitude gives our other players confidence," Halfpap said. "She knows she can play the type of role where she can be vocal and be behind your court and get you going if your head gets down a little bit. It'll be a little different if she's in the lineup, as a player, you've got your own match to be focused on, but can still be there to pick up your teammates when it's needed."
Cole has made strides since her freshman year, where she was able to compete in just three matches, as well, with a 3-0 record, but finds herself in the mix for a spot in the lineup.
"Sage has been by far the most improved player over the past two years – from her freshman year to last fall and from the fall until the start of this season," Halfpap said. "She's certainly working her way in there and is gaining on the other players. She could play some significant time for us if that continues."
The Salisbury schedule opens with a pair of neutral-site contests on February 13, played at Christopher Newport University before turning around the next day to take on the No. 37 Captains in an early-season Capital Athletic Conference opener.
The schedule is filled with tests for the Sea Gulls, including three matches against teams ranked in the preseason top 40. After the Christopher Newport showdown, Salisbury's next ranked opponent will be No. 12 Sewanee during the team's annual spring break trip to southern California, on March 16.
The only home match against a preseason ranked opponent will take place on March 24, when Salisbury hosts CAC rival the University of Mary Washington, which enters the year ranked No. 19 in the nation.
Salisbury's first home matches are scheduled for February 19 and 21, when the Sea Gulls host Juniata College and Bridgewater (Va.) College.
The focus will look toward standing for the CAC tournament, and potential rematches with Christopher Newport and Mary Washington, as the conference tournament takes place April 17-23.