What a difference a year makes.
Last September, Minnesota women's tennis coach Tyler Thomson had never seen nearly half his squad compete in a single collegiate tennis match until the Gophers' opening tournament.
This fall, however, curiosity of the unknown has been replaced by familiarity, as Minnesota returns 10 of 14 players from last year's team.
The identifiable Gophers begin their fall season this weekend when they host the Gopher Invitational Friday through Sunday at Baseline Tennis Center.
The three-day tournament includes players from six other teams - Louisiana State, Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Eastern Michigan, South Dakota State and Gustavus Adolphus - competing in two singles draws and one doubles bracket. Matches will begin at 9 a.m. each day.
For Thomson and his squad, it has been an unusual first week-and-a-half of practice time.
For the first time he can remember in his seven years at the helm of the Gophers, his team is nearly injury-free to start the season. Senior Alex Seaton is still on the mend, recovering from surgery, but should be ready to return to the court shortly.
"I don't think we've ever had that scenario," Thomson said of the team's uncharacteristically good health report. "That's incredibly reassuring. It's so nice to have everyone, with the ability to start building from the very start and not get a late start on anything."
Senior Danielle Mousseau, who has been a part of three consecutive injury-riddled seasons with the Gophers, said the team's success this year will depend on its health.
"It's just nice that everyone is healthy and that everyone on our team knows they have a chance to play," she said.
"I think that's the most important thing, just improving and staying healthy at the same time, because I think we are only as good as we are healthy."
Although the spring season is still months down the road, Mousseau said she believes a healthy Minnesota lineup could be one to reckon with during the Big Ten season.
The Gophers went 4-5 in the Big Ten last spring, but ended their season by pushing 25th-ranked Indiana to the brink in their quarterfinal matchup of the Big Ten Tournament.
It appears that final matchup of the spring has carried through the summer and into the fall, as returning players have newfound confidence, Mousseau said.
"I feel like we have more confidence than we've ever had. I feel like everyone walks differently and holds their head up a little bit higher. I think we know that we know we can do it now, we don't even have any question anymore."
Sophomore Tajana Koprivica, who won her draw at the Gopher Invitational last year, said she agreed with Mousseau.
Koprivica, a fixture at the top of Minnesota's lineup during her freshman campaign, said she is already a more confident player in her second year with the team because she doesn't need to go through the adjustment period she had to as a freshman.
"I came back and I was like, I'm going to step in right away, she said." It's great being here a year and knowing what I can do and what's expected of
me. It's more relaxing, and I think I'm going to be better, hopefully."
Thomson said he hopes his team can build on its confidence throughout the fall. Competing in a field that isn't extremely deep, he hopes his players begin that process this weekend.
"More than anything," Thomson said. "(The fall season) is an opportunity to engender some team goals, some team spirit, and some team cohesiveness and prepare ourselves for the spring season."