Lele Forood acknowledged there's a different approach to Stanford's women's tennis season this time around. She started the year with six players, the minimum needed to play, and she did not have any recruits coming in to replace the graduating seniors.
Make no mistake, Forood expects the Cardinal (8-2 in the Pac-12 last year, 20-3 overall) to compete at the highest level. It's just going to take a little more nurturing.
All six players return from last year's team, which reached the national semifinal match, and all six have experienced success at the collegiate level. Grads Kristie Ahn, now on the pro circuit, and Amelia Herring, left a bit of a void.
"We all knew it was going to be a bit of an uphill battle," Forood said. "Our goals are to be at the top of the conference and to win the Pac-12 title. We'll just have to see from there. That's where we're coming from."
One of the nation's top recruiting classes will be joining the program next year, so Forood will be looking to get the best out of another one of the nation's top recruiting classes in current sophomores Carol Zhao, Taylor Davidson and Caroline Doyle. They all finished last year ranked among the top 50 -- led by Zhao, an All-American, at No. 22.
Senior Ellen Tsay and junior Krista Hardebeck and Lindsay Kostos make up the rest of the core group. Hardebeck ranked 42nd at the end of last season and Tsay was at No. 69.
Stanford will be sending players to a couple of tournaments this weekend: the Freeman Invitational hosted by UNLV and the National Collegiate Tennis Classic, played at Indian Wells.
The Cardinal opens its dual-match season on Jan. 29 with a visit from Princeton, which is
coached by Stanford product and two-time NCAA singles champion Laura Granville.
"We're stressing just getting better by May," Forood said. "You're not going to win any championships until then and if everybody looks to improve, it will help the team. When we start seeing that improvement, it translates to confidence and gives the team a lift."
Stanford has a reputation for showing up at tournament time. The Cardinal was seeded No. 11 last year and proceeded to knock off No. 6 California and No.3 Virginia before losing to No. 7 North Carolina in the Final Four.
Stanford became the lowest-seeded team in NCAA history to win the team title in 2013, carrying a No. 12 ranking into the tournament and beating No. 5 USC, No. 4 Georgia, No. 1 Florida and No. 3 Texas A&M to capture the title.
In 2010, the Cardinal was No. 8 and bounced No. 1 Baylor, No. 6 Notre Dame and No. 3 Florida from the tournament to win the team crown.
"Whatever was working those years, we don't question it," Forood said. "It just works and everybody seems to do their part. Those years were unlike the 2005 or 2006 teams, which were expected to win. Sometimes it's about what you believe and playing one match at a time."
Stanford ranks eighth in the ITA's preseason poll. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinal fares through its first 13 matches, which include seven ranked opponents -- including four of the top seven.
Stanford has a stretch of four matches in February against No. 11 Vanderbilt, vs. No. 2 Duke in Gainesville, at No. 3 Florida and against No. 7 California. That's all before the Pac-12 conference schedule, which includes a trip to defending national champion and No. 1 UCLA and to No. 14 USC.
"It's good for us to get the tough competition early and see how the players stack up," Forood said. "Playing Duke and Florida back-to-back is like playing in the national semifinal and national final. It's good training."
Doyle, who had a late start to training due to an illness, led Stanford with her 34-6 overall record (20-2 in dual meets) while Zhao finished 30-7, Davidson was 26-8 and Tsay 24-10. Kostas is 22-11 in her career and played regularly at the No. 6 spot as a freshman. Hardebeck led the Cardinal with 36 wins as a freshman.
"Everybody has improved," Forood said. "We see some players who have made tremendous improvement. You may see some of them play higher this year."
Forood filled out her 2015 roster by recruiting four players who were already on campus, including Castilleja grad Paulette Wolak, a two-time first team All-WBAL pick. Her father, Frank, is a professor in the Department of Economics at Stanford and a former tennis player at Rice.
Other additions include Montana Morgan, Isabel Prado and Nora Tan.
"They all have junior tennis experience," Forood said. "They've all been ranked players. They just haven't played recently so it will take some time. We need them to get up to speed and get a chance to play. That's why these tournaments are important to us. We'll get to see them all in competition."
The seventh spot in Stanford's lineup has always played an important role. Should one of them step up, who knows, maybe another title could be in the cards.