As the UCLA women’s tennis team prepares for the NCAA Tournament, a sense of confidence is nearly tangible at the Los Angeles Tennis Center during the Bruins’ practices.

The mood is light but focused, and the sound of rackets thrashing balls down the line is just a little bit louder than usual.

It all comes with the territory of being the No. 11 seed in what coach Stella Sampras Webster calls her team’s version of the “Big Dance.” To meet great expectations, great preparation is necessary.

“I think everyone’s kind of scared of us,” junior Yasmin Schnack said. “And they should be.”

However, it was questionable whether the Bruins would have stricken fear in the hearts of anyone in 2009 after four seniors from last year’s NCAA Championship team graduated, opening four gaping holes in the lineup.

UCLA had to rely on Nina Pantic and Carling Seguso, two talented but inexperienced freshmen, and Maya Johansson, a sophomore transfer from Georgia Tech, to fill those holes. Despite some instability at the beginning of the year, the newcomers were able to rally around the team’s veteran returning players and put together a successful season.

Sampras Webster has constantly stressed continuous improvement over the course of the year. From the start, May has been the target date for her players to be playing at peak performance, and the coach believes that goal has been accomplished.

“I really believe we’re playing the best tennis we’ve played all season,” Sampras Webster said. “Based on our results, we are where we deserve to be, No. 11 in the country, but I think with the way our doubles teams are playing and everyone improving so much, there’s really no telling how far we can go.”

The one Bruin that has gone through the most notable improvement is Schnack, who began the year ranked No. 106 in the nation. After winning her first 12 singles matches of the season and finishing with a 17-4 record, Schnack catapulted to No. 15.

Senior Ashley Joelson has also seen an improvement in the quality of her play since March 5, when she and Seguso pulled off consecutive comeback victories against USC to clinch the match for the Bruins. Including that match, Joelson has compiled a 6-2 record, after starting the season by losing five of her first seven matches.

“Ashley’s playing the best she has all season,” Sampras Webster said. “She really struggled at the beginning of the season, and it’s amazing how strong she’s playing right now.”

Joelson acknowledged that she has been playing well of late, but she refused to take all of the credit for the team’s success.

“With (the seniors) leaving, Yasmin, Andrea and myself have really stepped up this year,” Joelson said. “Yasmin’s come in and played No. 1, and she’s won so many matches for us. (Sophomore) Andrea (Remynse) … is getting back into it, and she’s getting her confidence up, so she’ll be fine. I think I’ve really stepped up my game. I think it’s the best season I’ve had so far, and I’m proud of myself.”

Seguso has shown composure and poise beyond her years for UCLA by posting a 15-7 singles record, playing mostly at the No. 6 position but on occasion playing as high as No. 3.

“I think Carling Seguso has improved quite a bit and won a lot of matches for us,” Sampras Webster said.

Of course, UCLA isn’t the only team to get better, but according to Sampras Webster, it comes down to who’s improved the most.

“All we can do is control what we’re doing, and we’ve got to feel good about what we’ve done,” she said. “I do feel good about what our players have done this season, and we’ll find out if it’s good enough.”