When Karen Miller became women's tennis coach at Cal Poly University in Pomona seven years ago, the program was pretty much a "Holiday for Strings." "It was definitely a fun-and-games operation," Miller explained. "We didn't have any players with tournament experience, and nobody was taking anything too seriously. I kept 25 players on my first squad because I thought it might help build interest in the program. But ordinarly, because you want to give as much individual attention as possible, you go with only 10 or 12."
"For two years we struggled," Karen continued. "Then I went out and recruited a fine junior college player named Laura Weber. At the time I recruited Laura we had $400 in our budget. I also got a break when a Canadian girl traveling by car with her parents to Palm Springs was attracted by the beauty of the Cal Poly campus and got in touch with me. Her name was Pat Thain, and she turned out to be my No. 1 player."
We now interrupt this story to tell you that Cal Poly has just won its second consecutive AIAW Division II national championship, with victories in 32 of 37 matches and a total of 75 1/2 points. The University of Richmond, the runner-up school, had 54 1/2.
During the regular season, Miller's team went 19-9, then won the Western AIAW Regionals, which put it into the national championships at Charleston, S.C.
Six Cal Poly stars, seniors Tracey Wills, Jill Morton, and Tracy Thompson, plus juniors Cathy Claussen and Lorraine Beach and sophomore Brigitte Nathan, were named All-America, Wills and Claussen for the second time. Morton, Wills, and CLaussen have also made two appearances on the Avon Futures tennis circuit.
Asked how you put together a championship college tennis with a minimum of publicity, the budget of a church mouse, and a coaching staff of one (herself), Miller replied:
"You go out and recruit good people with good attitudes.It's as simple as that on the surface, although the time you spend scouting high school tournaments, players, and junior college tournaments is incredible. Then, if you see a kid you like, you can't talk to her face to face under our conference rules. You either have to go home and try to reach her on the telephone or write her a letter. I mean it's frustrating.
"I learned to recruit from my husband [Dan], who is athletic director and head basketball coach at Anaheim High School. The most important thing Dan told me was to be honest, to let the players I'm after know what type program I run and exactly what goals I have in mind for the team."
Although the conference Cal Poly plays in permits member schools to offer four scholarships a year, there is barely enough money in Miller's budget to give even one free ride. Her solution has been to spread the money around by having six or seven girls on partial scholarships at the same time.
Unable to compete for talent with the big power schools like Southern California and UCLA, Miller is often in the position of approaching a top player with two financial strikes against her. But occasionally she will get a blue-chip high school or junior college player who prefers the immediate prospect of being a big fish in a small pond to waiting.
This is what happened to Tracey Wills, who was All-America in high school, already had a junior ranking, and could have gone to several big schools. In fact, Tracey's doubles partner in high school (Jill Morton) decided to go to UCLA, where as a freshman she stayed low on the totem pole despite her potential and was seldom included on road trips.
While cobwebs multiplied on Morton's racket, Wills (as Cal Poly's No. 1 player) was competing against some of the toughest women's talent in southern California and making every road trip. This explains why Jill later transferred to Cal Poly.
Miller, who acts as though she would like to hide her talents under a can of tennis balls and who once threw a no-hit, no- run game in women's fast-pitch softball, is as much into fundamentals in her sport as John Wooden was in basketball.
"Wooden is a man whose teaching methods I've always admired, and once you've got the basics you never make that many mistakes," Karen said. "To me, concentration is often more important to winning than strategy, and so much of tennis after a while gets to be in the head that it's important that players also improve mentally."
Since Miller can only be in one place at a time when members of her team are playing several tournament matches, she generally watches only those players who she anticipates may need help.
"Occasionally I'll stop between games and talk with one of my players about something she is doing wrong or not anticipating that well," Miller explained. "But mostly when I go by, I just yell GBS! They all know what I mean -- stop fooling around and get back to general basic stuff."