There are eight sophomores on the Newport Harbor High girls' tennis roster, and seven of them started in the Sailors' crucial Sunset League match at Los Alamitos on Thursday.
The eighth player, Lane McArdell, also has found a role.
That role was supposed to be as No. 2 singles player, but a stress fracture in her back earlier this season changed things. Still, McArdell has proved valuable.
"I am bummed that I can't play," said McArdell, who wore a large back brace. "But I'm seeing a new perspective and another way to help the team win by just being there and cheering. It's making me a better teammates, even though I can't be on the court."
The Sailors needed the cheers provided Thursday by their substitute players of McArdell, junior team captain Kat Smith, junior Carolyn Altshuler and freshman Kristin Lindh. They were in hostile territory, with dozens of Los Al students ready to try to root their team to victory, and the four substitutes had to try to counteract that.
In the end, the Sailors buckled down for a gritty 10-8 victory over the defending league champions, keeping Newport Harbor undefeated in league with four matches remaining.
Newport Harbor (12-2, 6-0 in league) is in position for its second outright league title in three years. The Sailors stayed in that position with their second league win against Los Alamitos (5-2 in league). This one was closer than the 11-7 win the Sailors got on their home courts.
The Griffins had the match tied at 3-3 after the first round, and both teams had 24 games. It seemed like it would go down to the wire, but two doubles wins in the second round helped propel the visitors.
With the match score tied 5-5, Newport Harbor's No. 1 and 2 teams came through. First it was senior Lauren Davis and sophomore Avery Wooden coming through with a 6-3 victory over Los Alamitos' No. 3 team of Elaine Oh and Madison Bordelon. Then, the Sailors' sophomore No. 1 duo of Lauren Lipkowski and Amra Barton rallied for a 7-5 win over the Griffins' Alex Sekulic and DuBourdieu.
The match score was the same, 7-5, after the round, and Lipkowski and Barton quickly beat Oh and Bordelon, 6-0, in the third round. After Newport senior No. 1 singles player Nicole Knickerbocker defeated Sarah Moriel by the same score, the Sailors had a 9-5 advantage, and enough of a games lead to clinch the match. Still, the sophomore No. 3 doubles team of Riley DeCinces and Sterling Solomon provided the 10th win, with a 6-3 victory over Sekulic and DuBourdieu.
DeCinces and Solomon had to rally from a 3-0 deficit, winning the last six games of the match.
"We knew that if we were going to win, we had to fight and just block out any distractions," Solomon said.
Knickerbocker stayed undefeated in league with a 6-1, 6-2, 6-0 sweep, while sophomores Keilani Lee and Lauren Richter each won once in singles. It's Richter who moved into the starting lineup with McArdell's injury, and her 6-3 win over Moriel — the last set completed in the first round — helped the Sailors tie the match score at 3-3.
Hailey Hairrell and Rebekah Chung swept at No. 1 doubles for the Griffins, who also got two singles set wins each from Lauren Nguyen and Kristen Eliassen.
"Much respect to Los Al, they came out definitely fired up," Newport Harbor coach Kristen Case said. "They really tested us, and I'm really proud of how our team responded … Today the girls really tapped into their mental toughness. Every round was a grind, and they stayed mentally tough and executed when they needed to."
The support of the substitutes indeed played a role for the Sailors, who can clinch at least a share of the league title with home wins against Marina on Monday and Huntington Beach on Tuesday.
"We definitely operate like a family, and everybody understands that they have huge value to our squad," Case said. "The energy that we needed today from the girls that were off the court was so important. They were probably one of the biggest factors in the win."