By Brian Yauger
The Youngstown State University women’s tennis team is back for another season, fresh off claiming their fifth straight Horizon League title last year. Penguins head coach Mickael Sopel returns for his sixth season with the program and aims to continue his past success.
“The girls did a really good job, practiced really hard, and they got what they deserved,” Sopel said on YSU’s fifth-straight Horizon League title. “The goal was to keep that championship home, and we were able to do that. We went on to the NCAA tournament again and played Florida [in the] first round, which is a tough program, but we held our own and we did a good job. I’m very happy with how we played last season.”
The Penguins enter this season returning five of the eight players from last year, losing three to graduation. Top performers, Imaan Hassim and Cassandra Moraleja, return to the program and are the two most experienced members as juniors. New to the program is Elvira Esteo, a freshman coming in from Spain.
When a team wins a conference title five straight years, the expectations are understandably high. Sopel is notably impressed with how well his teams have played under such pressure.
“Expectations are quite high,” Sopel said. “Every year you have to stay on top which is a hard thing to do. Pretty impressive to be able to do it the last five years, I’m really impressed with those girls. It’s really hard to play with a target on your back.”
Last year, the Penguins finished the season with a 16-11 record. That included an 0-7 start before winning five-straight matches. YSU dominated in conference play to the tune of an 8-1 Horizon League record and 10 overall wins in the conference after beating Cleveland State University and the University of Illinois-Chicago in the HL tournament.
“We’re the team to beat every year, and for us to be able to keep that going, and to stay strong and to keep the championship home is pretty impressive I think,” Sopel said. “The goal is to keep the championship home, and to get ready for the tournaments in April.”
Breakout performances aren’t on Sopel’s mind because he says all of them are capable of breaking out.
“It’s the one that works the hardest,” Sopel said. “We have a lot of talent on this team. All of them can do great things. They all have great tennis skill. The one who puts the time in, the one who works the hardest in practice, the ones who really want it, those are the ones that break through. It’s always been the case with this team.”
Just as last season, the Penguins may have to withstand an early season struggle in order to be successful. With just six girls and no seniors, Sopel doesn’t seem all that worried about his team this year.
Their season kicks off on Sept. 21 with the Akron Shootout followed by the Rocket Invitational that goes on Oct. 12 to 13. Conference play starts in the spring.