Illini freshmen look to contribute right away

Big things come in small packages.

While head coach Michelle Dasso’s incoming freshman class makes up a third of the nine-player roster, the three may not physically intimidate the competition.

“I have to make a little joke about the size of my class,” Dasso said. “The height of my three, it’s not exactly the tallest bunch I’ve ever seen.”

The tallest of the three freshmen is Louise Kwong, a 5-foot-4 lefty out of Earl Haig Secondary School in Ontario, Canada. She is joined by Alexis Casati from Deerfield, Ill., and Jerricka Boone out of Country Club Hills, Ill. Casati and Boone both stand at 5-foot-2.

But Dasso isn’t worried about stature being a problem.

“They have a lot of heart,” Dasso said. “I’m really so excited about these three I have coming in.”

Kwong, Boone and Casati each bring impressive resumes with them to Champaign as highly touted recruits. Kwong was a finalist at the under-18 all-Canadian nationals tournament, and was ranked as one of the top-five under-18 players in Canada. Casati and Boone were both ranked as five-star recruits by tennisrecruiting.net. Casati placed fifth in the IHSA tennis tournament as a junior, and Boone won the IHSA tournament as both a freshman and a junior. Boone didn’t compete in the state tournament her other two years of high school.

Even with a strong tennis rap sheet, the adjustment to collegiate tennis and college life hasn’t been easy. Kwong, Boone and Casati have had to hit the ground running while balancing class and practice. “I thought it was going to be a lot easier,” Boone said of the transition. “It’s actually really hard to balance school and tennis and (mandatory study) hours.”

This type of demanding schedule may be tough, but it is what they were looking for when choosing a school. All three cited academics as one of the main reasons why they chose Illinois over other Big Ten teams.

“I always wanted something close to home with good academics,” Casati said. “I’m a journalism major, so I wanted somewhere with a good journalism program.”

Boone and Casati trained together with the same club in high school, and they shared the sentiment that they wanted to stay close to home. As for Kwong, she said distance also played a factor in her college decision.

“Most girls that play tennis in Canada try to get a scholarship in the States,” Kwong said. “I just wanted somewhere not too far from home.”

Even as freshmen, Dasso expects them to contribute right away. The fall season of individual tournaments begins Sept. 27, and Dasso plans for each of them to play in at least three tournaments before the winter break.

“I think all three are going to make an impact,” Dasso said. “I think they’re going to push the others and vice-versa.”

Dasso’s “others” returning from last year include All-Big Ten honoree Allison Falkin and All-American Melissa Kopinski, athletes who set examples for the three freshmen to follow.

“Individually, I’d like to be ranked in the top 10 (in the country),” Kwong said. “I look up to everyone. Melissa especially because she did so well last year.”

While the upperclassmen provide a measuring stick for success, as far as Boone is concerned, now is not the time to be intimidated.

“I don’t really look up to anyone,” Boone said. “I think there are a lot of good players on the team, but when it comes down to it, you’re going to have to compete against them.”

But before the season starts, the freshman class is enjoying each other’s company. Both Boone and Casati said they were “close” before they arrived on campus from their time in the junior tennis circuit, and Kwong has blended right in with them.

“They’re basically each other’s best friends, which is really cool to see,” Dasso said.

While being a freshman at the bottom of the totem pole can have its disadvantages, the trio prefers to look at their situation in a more optimistic light.

“We really have nothing to lose,” Casati said. “We’re like the underdogs.”

They may be “underdogs” for now, but Dasso has high hopes for her 2013 class along with her team as a whole.

“I think all three of them bring different personalities and different strengths on the court, but the common theme is that these girls are motivated,” Dasso said. “We want a Big Ten Championship. That’s what we strive for and work for every day.”

But a Big Ten title and a banner in Atkins Tennis Center isn’t the only goal.

“I want my players to leave here not only as better tennis players, but as better people,” Dasso said. “(I want) good kids that are passionate about getting better and have great work ethics. I feel like I hit the jackpot with these three when it comes to those qualities.”

Alex can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.