From Westwood to West Point: Illini women’s tennis to begin season on both coasts

The Illinois women’s tennis team begins its 2013-14 season Friday with a weekend schedule that spans the length of the country.

Head coach Michelle Dasso is taking four of her players to the West Point Invitational in West Point, N.Y. Meanwhile, roughly 3,000 miles away, assistant coach Ric Mortera will oversee senior Allison Falkin and junior Melissa Kopinski as they compete at the Riveria/ITA Women’s All-American Championships in Westwood, Calif.

Although her team will be split up across the country, Dasso isn’t worried about communication between coaches. She is confident in Mortera and anticipates a frenetic weekend of tennis updates between head coach and assistant.

“We’ll be talking nonstop everyday I’m sure, keeping each other in the loop,” Dasso said.

This weekend’s tournament scheduling came about under unique circumstances. Sophomore Audrey O’Connor is among the four Illini competing at West Point, and she will not be the only member of her family competing among the 17 teams represented.

“My sister’s on the team (at West Point),” O’Connor said. “I’m actually a twin.”

Coach Dasso was aware that Audrey’s twin, Haley, was on the United States Military Academy’s women’s tennis team. During the scheduling process, she made sure to enter the Illini into the West Point Invitational for the O’Connor family.

“I contacted the coach (at West Point) and explained to him that we’re trying to get out there,” Dasso said. “I knew that would be something that would be super special for Audrey and her family and mean a lot to them. The whole O’Connor clan is going.”

Audrey O’Connor appreciates Dasso’s scheduling efforts. Besides having a twin in the Army, she also has a brother in the Air Force who will be in attendance along with her parents. This weekend provides the opportunity for an O’Connor reunion.

“My whole family is close and we don’t get to see each other a lot,” O’Connor said.

Family ties led Dasso to schedule West Point, but she also wanted to play the tournament to seek new competition. The Illini have never competed at the West Point Invitational, and eastern teams such as Connecticut and future Big Ten foe Rutgers are included in the field. Junior Julia Jamieson, sophomore Emily Baretta and freshman Alexis Casati will play alongside O’Connor at West Point.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how they do in competition,” Dasso said. “It’s (against) a lot of teams we haven’t seen, which is nice.”

The individual tournament begins Friday on Army’s campus at the Lichtenberg Tennis Center.

At the Riviera/ITA Women’s All-American Championships in California, Ric Mortera will be coaching in his first tournament as an assistant coach at Illinois since his departure following the 2011-12 season to become an assistant at Purdue. He was a volunteer assistant for Dasso at Illinois for two years prior to last season. The No. 89 ranked Allison Falkin and the No. 102 ranked Melissa Kopinski get the chance to compete against the “cream of the crop” at the Riviera tournament, according to Mortera.

“It’s kind of the first big, major tournament of the year,” Mortera said. “The best players in the country are going to be there.”

The best players in the country competing include No. 1 ranked Sabrina Santamaria of Southern California and No. 2 ranked Robin Anderson from UCLA. Santamaria also makes up half of the top-ranked doubles tandem in the nation, alongside USC’s Kaitlyn Christian. Santamaria and Christian ended the Illini’s run in last season’s NCAA Doubles Championships when they defeated the duo of Kopinski and graduated senior Rachael White.

Kopinski and Falkin will compete in both singles and as a doubles tandem at the Riviera tournament. Pre-qualifying rounds are Sept. 28-29 in Westwood before the tournament moves to Pacific Palisades, Calif. for the qualifying rounds and the main draw. Kopinski and Falkin both competed in singles at the tournament last year and Kopinski hopes to use her past experience to her advantage.

“I now know what to expect,” Kopinski said. “I’m hoping to do better in singles this year, so to have a good showing would be great.”

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