The Long Beach State women’s tennis team went on an incredible run under the guidance of 20-year coach Jenny Hilt-Costello, winning 14 Big West Conference titles in 15 years. However, the 49ers haven’t taken the conference tournament since 2015.
Hilt-Costello (pictured, left) thinks her young squad can get back to the top of the Big West this weekend at the conference tournament at Indian Wells. LBSU is the number five seed and opens play against Hawaii on Friday morning.
We sat down with Hilt-Costello for our weekly The LB Fee Show podcast to talk about this season.
Question: How is the year going in terms of your expectations?
Answer: We’ve been saying from the beginning we’re a work in progress. We’re a young team. No one on this team has been here for more than two years. We’re learning to play and win if we don’t have our A or B game.
When we were at Northridge, it was a windy day. It was kinda crazy. We got the doubles point relatively easy but our one, two and three singles went down in the first sets. Our freshmen took their sets, and that was huge. It gave us energy. We’re learning those team dynamics, and we’re a much better team now than we were in January.
Q: You’re going to Indian Wells this weekend for the Big West Tournament. Isn’t that like playing baseball at Fenway Park? It’s a special place in the tennis world.
A: Absolutely. Indian Wells is probably the fifth best facility in the world. That’s why I argue every year with coaches who want to take our Big West Tournament to campuses. I think it’s ridiculous. It’s a championship experience and the girls are excited. It’s something I recruit to.
Q: Is your team confident despite being the number five seed?
A: Anything can happen in the desert. We’ve gone out there as the one seed, but we’ve also gone as the second, third and fourth seed. I told the girls that we’ve taken our lumps this year, but we’ve gotten better, and we can go out and win it. You don’t have to be the one or the two seed to come out as champions. There are five teams, in my opinion, who could get hot for the weekend and take the title.
Q: Can you talk about your decision to recruit internationally? What does that take? Is it extra work than recruiting an athlete from California?
A: It’s just different. With the internet, Skype and YouTube, it’s really easy to ask them for match videos. Now we’re getting multiple match videos so we can see them play a number of times. Rankings and tournaments are also online so you can do comparisons. Our game plan has always been California and international. We open it up to the best available, and it just turns out that the internationals have been a better fit.
Q: If you had to pick one player from your tenure to go win you a match, who would it be?
A: That’s tough, because one player doesn’t win you a match. You can have an incredible number one player who fits that description, but if they don’t have the supporting cast behind them we’re never gonna win a match.
Q: How do you find your lineup of top six players? Is it fluid throughout the year?
A: I’m not really big into challenge matches. This is not a situation where we throw out balls and go play for the number two and three position. What we do is evaluate their play in the fall semester, and how they handle pressure situations. For example, our doubles teams have been fluid, and freshman Lalita Devarakonda was having a little bit of trouble settling in at the three position, so we moved her down the lineup. She went down to five, got some confidence, and now she’s understanding how to work points. Now she’s back up to four, and next year you’ll see her even higher.
Q: Who is the best female tennis player of all time?
A: Steffi Graf. There are personal favorites. Obviously Serena (Williams) is going to go down as one of the greatest of all time, and I think Martina (Navratilova) as well. But there was just something about how Steffi played, and how she won her slams in such a short period of time.