Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - May 17, 2013

Stanford women's tennis, softball open NCAA action

by Rick Eymer

Natalie Dillon was determined to attend Stanford University since she first laid eyes on the place at age five. Playing tennis for the 12th-ranked Cardinal was another story in itself.

"Since day one it was my dream school," Dillon said. "It was the first school I ever visited, so I assumed they were all like that. When I visited other schools, I was a little surprised."

Dillon turned her dream into reality, gaining admission to Stanford and asking Cardinal coach Lele Forood if she could, at least, walk on and try out for the team.

Four years later, Dillon progressed enough that she earned a spot on the singles ladder and recorded the clinching point in Stanford's 4-0 victory over Rice on Saturday. Her last appearance at Taube Family Tennis Center as a member of the 12th-ranked Cardinal becomes a memory that lives forever.

Dillon, one of two seniors along with Stacey Tan, hopes to add another national title to the school's legacy and her resume. It won't be easy.

The Cardinal (18-4) plays No. 5 seed USC (23-2), which won the Pac-12 team title with an undefeated run through conference play, on Friday in the Round of 16 at Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex in Urbana, Ill.

The Trojans handed Stanford its worst loss of the season, 6-1, on March 30 in Los Angeles. Dillon lost her match in straight sets. Tan was the lone winner for the Cardinal. Stanford has won seven of eight since, also losing to California, 4-3, in the regular-season finale.

Sabrina Santamaria (2) and Danielle Lao (9) gives USC two players ranked among the top 10. Nicole Gibbs, the defending national singles champion, is Stanford's highest-ranked player at No. 13. Krista Hardebeck is ranked No. 14. Kristie Ahn follows at No. 25, with Ellen Tsay at No. 92 and Tan, who reached the NCAA singles championship match two years ago, is ranked No. 103.

"We're going in as the underdog and I love that position," Dillon said. "We have everything, and nothing, to prove. We know what they will bring. At the NCAAs, you don't know what will happen. Nerves are different. It's game on."

Dillon knows something about being an underdog. Growing up through the public school system in San Francisco, she learned how to play tennis at Mission Playgrounds, with volunteer coaches. Most important, the lessons were free courtesy of the Youth Tennis Association, which provided after-school activities for neighborhood kids.

"They provided a great service to the community," Dillon said. "A lot of people went on to play in high school. Because of budget cuts, though, the program was ended two years ago."

Dillon, who played at St. Ignatius before coming to Stanford, remains committed to the program that allowed her to compete at a high level.

"I've been working with the City's Recreation Department trying to get the program back," Dillon said. "It plays such an important part in giving kids something to do after school and keeping them out of trouble."

The program also allowed Dillon to develop her game outside of private lessons to he extent she holds her own as a singles and doubles player at a nationally ranked, Division I school. She's 33-32 in singles play and 33-23 in doubles play. She mainly plays doubles with Hardebeck this season.

After watching the program from a fan's perspective, Dillon wasn't quite sure if she would fit in. Her first action came at the St. Mary's Fall Invitational in mid-October of 2009.

"I was so uncertain because I didn't know my role," Dillon said. "I didn't even know if I belonged after looking up to Stanford for so long."

Dillon won her first collegiate match and reached the quarterfinal. Playing doubles with Logan Hansen, she won all three matches in which she played.

"With time I gained more confidence," said Dillon, who was named the 2008 West Catholic Athletic League Player of the Year. Her main competition was Mitty's Tayler Davis, who currently plays for California.

All four Pac-12 schools who qualified will play in Friday's Round of 16. Only Stanford and USC face a conference rival until a possible semifinal meeting. No. 7 UCLA plays No. 10 Michigan, and No. 8 California goes up against No. 9 Alabama.

Meanwhile, Stanford was well represented on this year's All-Pac-12 Team as Gibbs was honored for the third time in her career, garnering first-team accolades for the second straight season after earning a spot on the second team as a freshman. Ahn and Hardebeck were named to the second team. Ahn is a two-time recipient after receiving first-team recognition two years ago.

Softball

Sophomore Cassandra Roulund is one of six Stanford players with a batting average over .300. The 13th-ranked Cardinal (37-19) hits .302 as a team.

Stanford's rate of success will be tested when it meets Tulsa (42-14) on Friday in the first round of the double-elimination Lincoln Regional, hosted by 14th-seeded Nebraska (40-13) and also involving Northern Iowa (26-24).

The Golden Hurricanes have a team ERA of 1.80, with Aimee Creger (25-6, 1.04) owning the fourth-lowest ERA in the nation. Not that Stanford is overly concerned about its offense.

"Anybody fortunate enough to play in the Pac-12 is prepared to play in the postseason," Roulund said. "You can't get better unless you play the best. We have power and we have ability."

Stanford is one of eight teams out of the Pac-12 in the tournament and has played 30 games against the current field, with a 16-14 record. The Cardinal is making its 16th consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, and is looking for a spot in the College World Series for the first time since 2004.

Stanford has won seven regional titles and advanced to a super regional in five of the last eight years. The Cardinal owns an overall 39-34 (.534) record in the postseason.

"We're going to put up a good fight," Roulund said. "We get energized from new things. We have a lot of energy anyway and we trust our teammates and that will help us. It's all about mindset."

Roulund was one of 10 Cardinal players honored on various all-Pac-12 teams. She was named honorable mention along with Teagan Gerhart, Sarah Hassman, Leah White and Jessica Plaza.

Kayla Bonstrom became the third Cardinal named Freshman of the Year, joining Jessica Mendoza and Ashley Hansen.

Bonstrom, who leads Stanford in batting average (.414), doubles (11), runs batted in (51, tied with Jenna Rich), slugging percentage (.650) and on-base percentage (.497), was also named to the all-Pac-12 first team.

Rich, who holds the school's career RBI mark with 213, was also named to the first team while Hanna Winter, the team leader in hits with 68 (three more than Bonstrom), was named to the second team.

Kelsey Stevens was also named to the All-Pac-12 freshman team, and Kaitlin Schaberg earned honorable mention.

White, Winter and Bonstrom also were named to the All-West Region second team.

Baseball

Stanford is left with a seven-game season, barely enough time to impress the NCAA selection committee.

The Cardinal plays a three-game Pac-12 series at California, beginning with a 6 p.m. Friday night start. There's also a three-game set with UCLA to end the season, and a nonconference affair with Pacific (on Tuesday).

Stanford (11-13 in the Pac-12, 26-21 overall) takes a six-game losing streak with it to Berkeley this weekend, and the Cardinal desperately needs to sweep a series to get back into the good graces of those in charge of the NCAA tournament.

For the Cardinal, currently ranked No. 80 in the NCAA RPI ratings, the ideal situation would be to finish on a 7-game winning streak, though a 6-1 mark, as long as the one loss is to the Bruins, would also help.

Stanford has won six of its 19 games against teams with better RPI ratings and only the Bruins (No. 16) give the Cardinal a chance to improve its standing.

Stanford opened the season with wins in 10 of its first 12 games but has played under .500 since, with odd circumstances dictating the oddity.

The Cardinal ranks fourth in the Pac-12 with its 3.49 team ERA, but then add in the 44 unearned runs and that's a start. Stanford ranks eighth in fielding percentage (.969) and leads the conference with 59 wild pitches. By definition, a wild pitch allows an opposing runner to advance at least into scoring position.

Stanford is hitting .273 on the season, sixth in the conference and nearly .030 higher than at its low point in early March. But the Cardinal doesn't like to take walks, bunt a runner along, get hit by a pitch or strike out. The Cardinal ranks eighth in walks, last in sacrifice bunts, last in getting hit by a pitch but only Arizona has struck out fewer times.

Stanford does hit a lot of home runs and has a propensity for hitting into double plays. Only Arizona State has hit more home runs this year but the Cardinal ranks third in hitting into double plays, 37 of them so far.

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