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AGS UNDERDOGS AT BIG WEST TOURNEY

Four years ago, Christian Wright started on a building program. Two, in fact.

One was to make the tennis teams at Utah State competitive. The second was to get some indoor playing facilities for a sport played in the winter. Good teams, he found, came more easily than his courts.It's hard to build a program where practice is crucial and there is no place to practice. And, it's harder still to get the indoor courts without a world-beating team to justify the expense to the hierarchy.

Through it all, though, Wright has been able to build competitive teams that can win matches and are no longer considered patsies by any school.

Next week, both his men's and women's teams will travel to California to play in the Big West Conference Championships. The Aggies go into the event as underdogs. While they're not expected to win the title over some of the country's top collegiate teams, they should make a respectable showing.

Considering the Aggies' playing conditions, and a number of injuries and departures on the men's team, Wright says his teams are playing well right now.

The women's team has the best overall record. After going 0-3, the ladies came back to win three of the next four.

The team is led by four seniors - Libby Romney, Melanie Grass, Peachy Romney and Jennifer Smart. The four began their collegiate careers together and will finish it up next week together. All four are Salt Lake-trained players. Libby Romney played for Highland High, Grass and Smart for Alta, and Peachy Romney for East.

Playing No. 3 for the Aggies is Ashley Thurston of Orange County, Calif., at No. 6 is Julie Richards from Clovis, Calif., and at No. 7 is Julie Hansen, also from Salt Lake and a product of East High. Other members are Fabiola Fujiwara of Brazil and Angie Thomas from Preston, Idaho.

Having the four seniors come up through the program has been a benefit, says Wright.

"You can see it in the way they play. The first year we were able to focus on fundamentals, the second on game plan and strategy, and from there on they were able to build. They're playing well right now," he notes.

At the start of the year his men's team was also looking strong. He had a good class of recruits. Injuries and a mission call cut ranks and made it necessary for Wright to fill gaps in the roster throughout the winter playing season.

Current members are David Perry and Jeff Wong from Jerome, Idaho, Danny Morgan from Olympus High, Kurt Snedeker from Bonneville High, Shane Bullock from Uintah High, Jim Duidge from Pueblo, Colo., Jonathan Barraclough from St. George and Wyatt Wood from Sky View.

Looking at the conference, Wright says that playing a schedule that does not include many of the conference teams "makes it difficult to predict. From what I've heard and read, though, teams at the top of the conference will be as strong as ever. We'll, no doubt, meet one of those teams in the first round. From there on I think things will be pretty even."

Despite what some think, the unseasonably warm winter hurt the USU teams as much as it helped. Usually, they'll stay indoors and play on two rubber-surfaced courts until spring. This year they were able to go outdoors early. But that meant staying outdoors.

"Once you start playing outdoors it hurts you to go back indoors. The rubber surface is so fast it's hard to adjust. It's better that we just stayed outdoors," he notes. This meant playing on the good days and not playing on the bad, which made for limited practice time.

A rush of matches late in the season did allow the Aggies to host more home matches this year than in the previous three combined. The final match, coincidentally, will be Saturday against the team it opened with - Utah.

The conference finals will begin on Thursday.