Most teams, now matter how small, would look at having a roster comprised of only two returning players as a recipe for rebuilding, but not so for Head Coach Paul Ricciardi and the College of Staten Island women’s tennis team. The Dolphins will be sporting an almost entirely new look when they take the courts for their opener at Pratt Institute tomorrow evening in Brooklyn, New York, but the target remains steady for the squad than finished 11-6 a year ago, the best ever in Ricciardi’s five-year tenure.
“We are going to lack the seasoning and the NCAA match experience that’s necessary at this level,” said Ricciardi of his 2011 assembly, which sees only two returning players to the squad of 10. “But I think we will be a better team overall this year. It’s exciting because our potential is still growing.”
Despite a return to the courts in late August to prepare for the season, and the prep work at a fever pitch to incorporate all the new faces, the Dolphins will be a work in progress, according to Ricciardi, but will also be expected to hit the ground running with an assembly of fine student-athletes, many of whom are chomping at the bit to earn a place in the rotation.
The anchor will be found in returning starter Ilona Stoyko, a two-time CUNYAC Rookie of the Week and 1st-team All-Star in 2010, who sported an 11-5 singles record a year ago, including an 8-1 clip in conference play. Stoyko could stay cemented at the No. 2 position, as newcomer Sophia Varriano will look to fill the top spot void left vacant by graduated senior and CSI Female Athlete of the Year Gabriella Villarruel.
“We think our one-two punch at the top is going to be very formidable, especially since Ilona is an experienced leader near the top who has definitely improved,” said Ricciardi. “With Sophia in the first spot it allows us to use our depth in the middle and at the bottom of our lineup, which makes us better all over.”
CSI’s other lone returner, Demi-Jean Martorano, who doubles on the women’s soccer pitch, appeared in just four contests a year ago, and will expect to battle for a position in the middle of the lineup with first year players Jean Baak and Alena Vedeneeva. The competition for spots will be wide open, according to Ricciardi.
“We are having good, open, competition for spots, and the women are really learning a lot about each other in the process,” he said. “It’s going to make things harder for us as a coaching staff to come up with the best lineup and doubles combinations, but it’s a nice problem to have.”
Not to be outdone, new faces Stephani Samoylovich, Maryna Incherera, Katie Schelin and Faith Avevor will all jockey for time both at singles and doubles. Because the race is a dead-heat, Ricciardi feels his team will be better for it.
“Our strength will be our depth,” he said. “We will be able to interchange players effectively, and we expect to get better with every match because our experience level and our level of competition will be raised, both at practice and at games.”
While Ricciardi and new assistants Jennifer Sullivan and Carissa Summerlad come in with guarded optimism, the coaches are keen on CSI tennis rising to the top of the CUNYAC ranks, with its eye on a championship by the time late-October rolls around.
“I think because we are so young, the goal of winning a CUNYAC Championship isn’t really our focus right now and seems like a long way away. It’s more about getting better and gaining the game experience we need one day at a time. Our seasoning will mold us and tell us who we are and where we want to go, but there’s no doubt that I expect us to be competitive and go far with this team, not only this year but in years to come as well.”
After finishing 8-1 in the CUNYAC a year ago, good for the No. 2 seeding come playoff time, CSI was knocked off in the quarterfinal round a year ago to No. 7 Baruch College. The sting of the early round exit should serve as motivation for an improved 2011, at least for the coaching staff.
“We are always looking to build and move forward and I think on paper we are there,” said Ricciardi. “We’re younger this year but we are better. Once we come together as a team I think we will see the potential we have and we can be very dangerous. We’ll find out who we are soon enough.”
After the Dolphins start off on the road tomorrow, the team will open up its home slate of games less than 48 hours later when they host Farmingdale State at the CSI Tennis Center on Saturday at 1pm. The squad will usher in the CUNYAC schedule on September 13, when the team faces off against Baruch College in a rematch of last year’s playoff meeting.