Tennis balls will be flying as the Gaucho women kick off the 2010 season today with a match at Arizona State. With a strong finish to last season, where the team knocked off #3 seeded Cal Poly in the quarterfinals of the Big West Tournament before losing a very close match to the #2 seeded UC Irvine in the semifinals, UCSB women’s tennis has high expectations for this year.

Santa Barbara is a relatively young team with just a few senior players and is currently without some of its top performers from last year. Juniors Michelle Murphy and Jill Damion earned Second Team Big West honors for the 2009 season, but Murphy has recently departed from the team and Damion is sidelined with a shoulder injury.

Damion, who will be the Gauchos’ number one singles player upon her return, has begun practicing and is expected back in four to six weeks. Murphy’s former doubles partner, sophomore Sofia Novak, will now be reunited in turn with her former partner, junior Tova Hausman. Hausman is making a long awaited return from injury herself.

“I think we have a perfect blend of youth and experience,” Head Coach Pete Kirkwood said. “I don’t see any reason why Tova and Sofia won’t be as good as Michelle and Sofia were.”

While several key players may be young, UCSB has a veteran leader in Kirkwood, who will be entering his 14th season as head coach of the women’s tennis program. Kirkwood has led the team to multiple conference titles and national rankings in his tenure. As recently as 2006, the Gauchos were ranked #70 in the nation.

Although the team will need to adjust to the temporary absence of Damion and several lineup changes, they certainly have the talent to jump up in the national rankings. Novak and sophomore Natalia Lozano will be starting the season as the number one and two singles players, respectively, and despite their inexperience, they are both capable of performing extremely well for the Gauchos.

“[Novak and Lozano] have an amazing amount of talent,” Kirkwood said. “[Novak] is in way better shape than she’s ever been in her life. She’s a lefty with one of the biggest forehands that I’ve ever seen in college tennis and [Lozano] is an incredible baseliner with great competitiveness.”

While singing the praises of his top singles players, Kirkwood also maintains confidence in the balanced lineup UCSB has fielded for another shot at the Big West Championship.

“We don’t necessarily have a big superstar, but we have a lot of depth and solid players all the way down the line,” Kirkwood said of his team. “We’re focused and fired up.”