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Longoria leads Lightning

A.G. Longoria's curiosity was piqued on his morning commute more than a decade ago.

Driving on the 73 toll road to his job as professional tennis coach at Mission Viejo Country Club, Longoria couldn't help but notice the mounds of dirt off to the side in Newport Coast. Then he received a phone call from Ken Stuart, who owns the Palisades Tennis Club and was on the athletic committee for this new campus.

"I read this article in the Daily Pilot about this incredible school they were going to build," Longoria said. "I didn't even know the name of it. But [Stuart] calls me one night right after I'd finished teaching and he says, 'Do you know anybody who would be interested in being the tennis coach at this private school?' "

Longoria asked the name of the school and was told it was Sage Hill School, on Newport Coast Drive. He instantly made the connection to the construction site he passed every day, and he had just the person in mind for the position.

"I said, 'I'm interested in that job,' " Longoria said.

He's been the coach since the school opened, and the Lightning boys' and girls' tennis programs have been the most successful at the school since they began varsity competition in 2001-02. They've combined to win six Academy League titles and make four CIF finals. The CIF Southern Section Division V title the girls won in 2005 is one of just two CIF team championships in school history, the other being girls' volleyball, also in 2005.

That could change Wednesday, when Longoria's boys' team takes on Valencia of Placentia in the Division III title match at The Claremont Club. It's an experienced Lightning bunch, with six seniors and a junior at No. 1 singles – Robbe Simon – who Longoria calls the best boys' player to ever play at Sage.

Longoria, 65, is a figure of encouragement for his teams. The two-time California High School Tennis Coach of the Year, as named by the United States Professional Tennis Assn., also is considered a master at maximizing his talent and constructing the perfect lineup. During Julia Blakeley's time at Sage, that usually meant she was at No. 1 singles. Blakeley just finished her freshman year at George Washington University. She is the first Lightning tennis player to compete in a Division I collegiate program.

"Coming in as a sophomore, A.G. was very welcoming but also just very supportive," Blakeley said. "He'd always ask me to call after my tournaments, he'd go online to look up results, he'd send me texts. He was so great, on and off the court. He dedicated everything to the tennis team."

Longoria is extremely organized, which at least partially comes from his days as a college tennis coach at the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of North Texas in the late 1970s and early '80s. Sage Hill senior Kevin Marshack said it's not unusual for Longoria to send the team emails late at night, detailing practice schedules, lineup ideas and the like. He keeps detailed records of each player, further breaking it down into the player's nonleague record, Academy League record and doubles record with any and all of their partners.

"He knows his spreadsheet well," Lightning senior Nasier Emtiaz said.

At the collegiate level, Longoria was named interim coach at UTPA when he was just 29 years old. At the University of North Texas, he coached for five years under then-football coach and athletic director Hayden Fry, a College Football Hall of Fame member who also had success at SMU and the University of Iowa. Longoria cut his teeth at the Division I program against some of the top tennis minds of the day, like Dick Gould of Stanford, the late George Toley of USC and Glenn Bassett of UCLA (who once coached at Newport Harbor High).

Longoria, who also coached women's tennis at Irvine Valley and Saddleback community colleges in the 1990s, said coaching Division I college tennis was nothing like high school.

"You don't do any coaching at a Division I program," he said. "If they don't have the skills, you're going to lose. You cannot train a Division I player in one year to be good. College coaching is 80% recruiting and 20% getting them to peak at the right time. It's PR work, it's sales. You're trying to sell your school, so you're on the phone, you visit, you go to tournaments. You have to know a little bit about the game, but there are some very successful college coaches who couldn't coach a high school team. But they've got marketing skills and great personalities."

Longoria, whose initials stand for Anselmo Gregorio, was a player on an NCAA championship team himself. He played for the University of Texas when the Longhorns won the title in 1963. Getting his Sage Hill teams to peak at the right time has rarely been a problem. He is constantly thinking about the bigger picture.

When the Lightning boys defeated Santa Margarita, 10-8, on March 1, it was their win against a Division I program. But Longoria, usually more reserved, got on Marshack and partner Alex Manolakas in the teams' post-match meeting. They had lost a 5-2 lead in one of their sets, eventually falling in a tiebreaker.

Longoria told the frustrated duo that it was unacceptable to lose a big lead like that. Since then, Marshack and Manolakas have lost just one set at No. 1 doubles.

"I was really mad after that match, but it kind of lit a fire under us," Manolakas said. "We only lost one more [set] the rest of the season. He made his point there, and I think it made a positive change."

Mic Billingsley, the father of girls' tennis senior Devyn and junior Rian, said he has also been surprised by Longoria before. When he brought his daughters into the program three years ago, he said he initially didn't understand Longoria's seemingly laid-back approach with the girls.

Three deep postseason runs later, Billingsley said he knows that Longoria is guiding the girls, "but in a backseat driver sort of way."

"I had to learn," Billingsley said. "He was so patient with me. He was coaching me, to be honest. He's a chess player. He moves things around. And he's just a good guy, man. I know he likes his rhythm and blues. He broke out into Smokey Robinson one day and I was like, 'Huh?' He's just got a totally different style."

In terms of his career, Longoria never reached cruise-control mode. The Lightning have found a home at The Tennis Club Newport Beach, but Longoria said he's been working with the school on getting on-campus courts. He said plans are in the works to build a three-story parking garage — with tennis courts on top — on the Sage Hill campus.

"The top of the lights of the tennis courts would be even with the freeway," Longoria said. "We could lease it to an academy, we could have classes there. Just like a gym makes money when they lease the courts to the volleyball clubs and stuff, we could do the same thing. World Team Tennis could be there, for example."

Longoria said he's also working on creating a California High School Tennis Coaches Assn. The organization would be interested in things like initiating a state tennis tournament, as well as expanding the weekly CIF rankings for each division from 10 to 25.

His work as ambassador of the sport has been impressive, and Longoria said he doesn't see himself leaving Sage Hill any time soon.

"I love the school, and that's the advantage they have on me," Longoria said, laughing. "Obviously, the pay is not really good … but it's very rewarding. I love tennis, but tennis is just a vehicle to teach life skills, and that is part of the overall view of Sage. Usually by their senior year, or maybe sometimes a couple years afterward, people realize what they've accomplished. They learn what hard work will do. I've had some very non-athletic people be successful by hitting thousands and thousands of balls, or being doubles specialists."

He's assembled an impressive coaching staff including former Laguna Beach High and Saddleback College coach Alec Horton, as well as Dave Siegmund, who played college tennis at Memphis State (now the University of Memphis). But the man in charge, the man who has built such a powerhouse program at a school with less than 500 students, will continue to be the one known simply as "A.G."

"I'm in the tennis business, but I teach on nights and weekends to make my income," Longoria said. "But [coaching at Sage Hill] is a full-time job. I don't think that you could be this successful — if you want to consider us successful — just working the two-and-a-half months of the season.

"I don't really have any other plans. I mean, would I like to be commissioner of the CIF and make $146,000 a year? Well, sure."

Longoria's impact at Sage Hill is priceless.

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