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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s Sophie Whittle works even harder now that she’s at the top of the collegiate tennis world

The news, as is increasingly the case these days, was delivered via text – two of them, in fact, from her coaches. Though not so much news as congratulations, so it was all rather cryptic.

“What are you talking about?” Sophie Whittle texted back.

“Check the rankings,” came the reply.

And a click or two later on her phone, there it was: The Intercollegiate Tennis Association had issued its first update of the new year, and atop the women’s singles list was the phone’s owner, a senior at Gonzaga University, which has some experience with the distinction of No. 1, just not in tennis. So naturally a teammate who was with her jumped on her back in celebration, and soon there were happy texts being fired off to family and friends to disseminate the news.

But the revelation came a couple of hours later, when head coach D.J. Gurule encountered Whittle and asked where she was headed.

“And she was going to see (strength coach) Travis Knight about getting in some extra workouts,” Gurule marveled. “This is Sophie to a T.”

So, celebration over.

This was certainly prudent, for as Whittle herself acknowledged, “The ranking puts a target on my back.”

But that wasn’t necessarily her motivation. Because while her record may have put her on top of the collegiate tennis heap for the moment, an obsession with staying there isn’t what drives her.

“I think there are a lot of schools that are just focused on results,” she said. “Here it’s about developing and bettering ourselves. If I push myself as hard as I can, I really can’t be disappointed or upset with results.”

Besides, it’s not as if a ranking is going to win her a match.

It is bound to raise some eyebrows, given the name on the front of the jersey.

Now, the Zags aren’t taking on the tennis world with dusty wooden rackets from the attic. Under Gurule, they’ve won 51 of 68 duals the past 3 1/2 seasons and have been runners-up in the West Coast Conference the last three years.

But you don’t go looking in Brooklyn for saddle bronc riders.

The fact is, there’s been exactly one NCAA women’s singles champ from a northern clime – Brienne Minor of Michigan in 2017. In the ITA’s Top 25 behind Whittle, there are just two other players not from warm-weather schools – Michigan’s Kate Fahey and Purdue’s Silvia Ambrosio. And the only other player from a non-Power 5 school is Evgeniya Levashova of Pepperdine, where the WCC trophy is on more or less permanent display.

But Whittle isn’t No. 1 as a novelty.

She bested five ranked players – and overcame a badly sprained ankle in the final – in winning the ITA/Riviera All-American Championships in Los Angeles in October, a first for a Zag. Of the current ITA top 50, she’s beaten 10 this season – half of them among the first 25.

“I think I do catch some people by surprise,” she said. “I feel a lot of people didn’t really take me seriously because of my ranking as a junior player.”

Which was, Gurule recalled, “like No. 150 in her class, which is good but not great. We don’t look at those kids as much anymore, because we can recruit a little higher-caliber athlete. But that really goes to show that getting an eye on a kid and getting to know her can be more vital than her forehand or backhand.”

What he saw was something other than a tennis automaton.

Whittle played multiple sports growing up in Nipomo, California, south of San Luis Obispo. With the bulk of the major junior events three to four hours away, she didn’t enter as many as the players in the LA-San Diego vortex. While many junior phenoms are home schooled for more flexible, focused schedules, Whittle went to high school – and didn’t lose a league match in four years.

Gonzaga lured her out of California – her mom played collegiately at Loyola Marymount – on what she thought would be just a token out-of-state recruiting trip. Instead, she wound up on the Zags’ traditional outing to pick out pumpkins to carve and fell for the team vibe.

“In any sport, especially collegiate sports, it’s not just one person that climbs the mountain,” Gurule said. “It wasn’t just Adam Morrison winning the scoring title. It was his guys pushing him every day.”

And now Whittle stokes that vibe. The spring dual season – which resumes with Friday-Saturday matches at Gonzaga’s Stevens Center – is “the best part of the year,” even with the NCAA tournament and a summer with the USTA’s national collegiate team in pro events on the horizon.

“Everyone’s going to be out to get me,” she said. “But I kind of like that.”

Gonzaga tennis player Sophie Whittle, who is the first Zag in history to be crowned an ITA National Champion. The victory qualified her for the Oracle ITA Fall National Championships in early November. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga tennis player Sophie Whittle, who is the first Zag in history to be crowned an ITA National Champion. The victory qualified her for the Oracle ITA Fall National Championships in early November. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo