MORAGA, Calif. -- After reaching the NCAA Tournament in each of the last three seasons, the Saint Mary's women's tennis team is raising the stakes for the 2013 season.
The majority of last year's team returns for head coach Lisa Alipaz this season, a fact that provided a good starting point for the Gaels when they hit the court for action in the fall.
But with the calendar now turned to 2013, the spring season offers a whole different challenge.
That's because Saint Mary's has loaded up the schedule, playing a slate that Alipaz calls the toughest her team has ever faced.
The numbers back up her claim. Saint Mary's will face 12 teams this season that begin the year in the top 75, according to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA). No. 2-ranked UCLA visits Moraga in late February, and the Gaels will also take on teams in Stanford and California that are ranked in the top 10 to begin the year.
"We're excited to play such high quality teams throughout the season," Alipaz said. "I'm anxious to see how our girls respond and I think we're capable of competing with every team we'll face."
Of course, the increase in challenge isn't without reason. The Gaels begin the season ranked No. 42 as a team, and return a squad that Alipaz said is maybe one of the deepest in recent Saint Mary's history.
Leading the way will be a pair of first-team All-West Coast Conference selections in senior Catherine Isip and junior Jenny Jullien.
Isip enjoyed a strong 2012 campaign, going 11-10 playing primarily at No. 1 singles. The three-time all-WCC selection went 7-1 in WCC play, and will look to build on those results this season as team captain.
Jullien enters the season as the Gaels' lone ranked player, checking in at No. 64 nationally in the latest rankings.
The native of Perpignan, France went 16-4 overall last season, 7-1 in WCC competition and was also named to the WCC All-Academic Team.
Jullien also enjoyed strong results this fall, reaching the Flight A singles semifinals at the Cal Nike Invitational and winning two matches at the ITA Women's All-American Championships.
Also returning for the Gaels this season will be junior Jade Frampton and a pair of sophomores, Elizabeth Searl and Catherine Leduc. Searl reached the quarters in both singles and doubles at the Saint Mary's Fall Invitational, and Leduc won two matches in her only tournament of the fall, the Bulldog Classic.
Frampton had a very strong fall, making it to the quarterfinals at the Cal Nike Invitational and the semifinals of the Saint Mary's Fall Invitational. Together with teammate Danielle Flores, Frampton also reached the Flight A doubles finals at the Saint Mary's Fall Invitational and the semifinals at the ITA Northwest Regional.
Four new Gaels took the court this fall for the first time in blue and red, and all achieved success right off the bat.
Flores, a sophomore transfer from Utah, teamed with Frampton and Hannah Liljekvist to reach the semifinals or further in three tournaments this fall. She also reached the singles semifinals at the Bulldog Classic.
Liljekvist, a freshman, junior transfer Audrey Leitz and junior Melissa Arthur also all found good results this fall, and will all play an important role for the Gaels this spring.
Action starts Friday for the Gaels, as they'll head through the Caldecott Tunnel to take part in the Cal Winter Invitational. From there, the action moves indoors as Saint Mary's will face a combination of UNLV, Cal or Fresno State (all three ranked teams) at the ITA National Indoors in Berkeley.
WCC play begins Feb. 6 when the Gaels travel to Portland, Ore. to take on the Pilots.