WALLA WALLA - Slam dunks in women's tennis?
In a literal sense, of course, there is no such thing.
And as Whitman College women's tennis coach John Hein scans the Northwest Conference landscape for possible victories this spring, there are no figurative slam dunks either, not for his team or any other.
"We are definitely stronger than a year ago, but the same is true of other teams in the conference," Hein says. "There isn't much difference between a handful of the top schools.
"There are going to be a lot of good, very competitive matches this season. It's going to be exciting."
After finishing a strong third last spring, Whitman stands ready to roll out a line-up anchored by junior standout Elise Otto and seniors Hadley DeBree and Divneet Kaur and buttressed by improving sophomores and a strong first-year class.
"I feel great about where we're at to start the season," Hein says. "We're stronger than we were a year ago when we played well against the top two teams."
"So yes, one of our goals is to win the conference this season. We have the talent to do to that, but there is a lot of tennis to play and Katie (Oost) and I talk a lot about both the quality and depth in the conference this year."
Oost, an ITA All-American in doubles who graduated from Whitman last May, is staying in Walla Walla this year to prepare for grad school and serve as Hein's assistant coach. "Having Katie here is so good for the team," Hein says. "She is very in touch with the players and what it takes to succeed."
Whitman makes its season debut at home later this week against a pair of NWC foes. The Missionaries host Puget Sound at 5 p.m. Friday and Pacific Lutheran at 11 a.m. Saturday.
A busy weekend then concludes with a non-conference match against Lewis-Clark State at about 3:30 p.m. Saturday. All three matches will take place in the Bratton Tennis Center.
Whitman's neighbor to the north, Whitworth, is the likely favorite as a new conference season commences.
"You have to put Whitworth as the favorite," Hein says. "They won it last year and lost just one senior to graduation. They return a deep team and they had new players show potential at the fall tournament. They are definitely the team to beat."
Linfield, the team Whitworth dethroned a year ago, also casts a formidable shadow. "They always field a strong team, and they always come ready to play. After Whitworth bumped them off the top last spring, I'd expect them to be gunning for it."
Willamette, Lewis & Clark and Pacific are three programs that qualified for the NWC tournament last year. Based on fall and early season results, each looks to be even stronger this year.
Whitman's two opponents this weekend, Puget Sound and Pacific, kicked off their seasons last Saturday with a pair of losses. The Loggers fell 7-2 to Willamette while the Lutes were dropped 6-3 by Pacific.
With his program at Whitman in its second year, Hein likes the continued growth he sees in his returning players.
"Our veterans are no longer getting used to a new program," he says. "We started to lay the foundation a year ago, and all of the work our players have done since then is starting to pay off."
Hein has yet to make any final or firm decisions on his line-up in singles or doubles, but he is excited about his team's potential.
"When you play college tennis, you can have a bunch of individuals, or you can be a team. In our sport, it is uncommon to have a group of individuals who work together as well as this team.
"Will this bring a conference title and national success to Whitman? I hope so. We've got talent and experience, and the more we focus on what we can control, the closer we come to attaining these goals."