There is no way around it: Tina Samara knows her West Virginia University women’s tennis program is in for a huge challenge competing in the Big 12 Conference this year.
Last season, the Big 12 had six schools in the final ITA rankings, including three – Texas, Baylor and Texas Tech - in the Top 25. By comparison, the Big East had three ITA-ranked teams and only one, Notre Dame, ranked among the Top 25.
Also, the Big East does not have a round-robin scheduling format in women’s tennis, instead utilizing a selection committee to pick the conference postseason tournament field each spring – a tournament WVU failed to qualify for this year after making it in 2011.
“We didn’t deserve to go,” said Samara, now in her second season with the Mountaineers.
Samara is rebuilding West Virginia’s program from the ground up, and the allure of playing some of the best players in college tennis in the Big 12 will certainly help the process.
“The key with our team and our incoming kids is this is what you should want. If you’re competitive and playing Division I tennis, you want to play the best teams and this is a great opportunity for them,” she said. “We didn’t plan this - I didn’t recruit kids telling them that we would be in the Big 12 because I didn’t know it was going to happen - but from my perspective it’s a huge upgrade.”
Samara said there are many differences between the two leagues on and off the tennis court.
“In the Big East there were some good teams at the top with Notre Dame and South Florida … and Syracuse was up there for a while, but the way it was run was so different and coming from the SEC, the Big 12 is real tennis to me,” she said. “They mandate things like having a chair umpire at every court. In the Big East they mandated two umpires.”
Another big change is the climate. The vast majority of the Big 12 matches are played outdoors while West Virginia has only managed to play one outdoor match during Samara’s two seasons here.
“We are indoors every day and then we go out and play in 85 degree weather in Texas … that’s going to be an obstacle, but my answer to that is Michigan has figured it out. Virginia has figured it out, so that’s not a really good excuse,” she said. “There are schools in this climate that are doing really well regardless. It is something you have to take as a challenge and say, ‘OK, this is not what I get to train in every day but this is what we have to do.’ We can also use our home schedule to say, ‘Hey, we have an edge when that school comes and plays us.’ We’re indoors and we’re used to the courts so it works both ways.”
Taking on some of the best programs in college tennis will certainly be a challenge and Samara has added to that challenge by continuing to schedule other top regional programs as well. She estimates that as many as 15 ITA-ranked teams could be on next year’s spring slate.
“We’re going to be the underdogs, but when I was at Georgia (the Bulldogs won national championship in 1994) we were too. It’s all about how you approach it with your mindset,” she explained. “Outside of our Big 12 schedule we’re playing Ohio State at home our first match; Marshall at home, Syracuse away, William & Mary away, Penn State away, Virginia Commonwealth, Virginia Tech at home and then the whole Big 12 schedule, and that was on purpose.”
Because the Mountaineer program has been struggling of late, Samara admits there are plenty of opportunities for good kids to play at the top of the lineup here right away in the Big 12. That is something she is selling to recruits.
“If I’m recruiting a kid that Texas is recruiting, they are going to play five at Texas and they are going to play two here,” she noted. “Tennis is such a unique sport outside of maybe golf and a few others where you can reach the NCAA tournament as an individual. Where you play in the lineup has a big impact on whether or not you are going to make the tournament as a singles player or a doubles player.
“If you’re playing five that’s great, but your odds of playing in the NCAA tournament are almost zero, even if you do really well.”
Samara said she is beginning to notice more interest in her program after the announcement was made last fall that West Virginia would become the 10th member of the Big 12 this July.
“I’m getting some more interesting emails that maybe normally we wouldn’t be getting, especially from kids from Texas and a little more from the West,” she said. “For us, we’re building the way a lot of programs are building by trying to get some international kids in. We have a kid coming in from Michigan who just beat a girl who is going to Michigan. Michigan is (top 15) so I feel really good about her.”
Samara said the way she is going to have to build West Virginia’s program is through player development - something she was known for during her prior stops at Louisiana-Lafayette and Colorado.
“That’s where we are really good. A lot of programs do well and aren’t getting much development because the kids are at a level where their kids are kind of coached and they stay in the top 30 every year,” she said. “If we get the right kids, and we can develop them, then we can do a whole lot because I think that’s what our strength is. It’s just a matter of getting that right kid that maybe isn’t quite good enough for the top schools in the Big 12 and then we develop them.”
Overall, Samara is encouraged by the players coming into the program this year.
“I tell kids, ‘Hey if you come here you are going to have 15 opportunities to play someone in the top 40.’ It’s going to be a very tough schedule, but I also think programs can turn around fairly quickly with the right kids and then getting the other kids on board,” she said.
“I think we have the talent,” she added. “We’re a little bit young, but not quite as young as you think. We brought in a kid from Louisiana (Audrey Wooland) where I was before and she is going to be a senior. Lea (Jansen) redshirted this year, but she’s back and she’s played two years in the Pac 12 (at Washington State). They might be new faces but they are not young. Emily (Mathis) is a senior and she always competes hard. Hailey (Barrett) is a freshman, but she’s obviously playing at a high level beating someone going to Michigan.
“I do think we have a group of kids who can maybe surprise some people.”Be sure to follow WVU women's tennis on Facebook by clicking the "like" button on the team's official Facebook page.