With eight returning starters, the Sage Hill School girls' tennis team appears to have a good chance to claim its third straight Academy League title this season.
Add in five talented incoming freshmen, and the Lightning just appear to have an embarrassment of riches.
They are Isabella Deckey, Maya Byrd, Stephanie Beder, Melissa Heard and Nataly Shayan Smith. The class of 2018 has arrived for the Lightning.
The only head coach the program has ever known, A.G. Longoria, knows that this is a special class. He said it's the most talented freshman class at Sage in more than a decade, since Sarah Geocaris, Stephanie Langer and Alle Hsu started their Lightning careers in 2003-04.
It's not to put pressure on the current freshmen, but Longoria knows all that class accomplished. For four straight years, Sage made at least the CIF semifinals, winning the program's only CIF championship in 2005-06 in Division 5.
Now Longoria sees this year's freshmen ready to compete for an already seasoned team. Byrd, from Irvine, is projected to play at No. 3 singles. Deckey, from Laguna Beach, projects to play at No. 1 doubles with senior Tess Alexander. And Beder, a Newport Beach resident, could play at No. 2 doubles with junior Marina Anderson.
Jaclyn Gerschultz, a junior who was the Academy League singles MVP last year, sees nothing but good things in this infusion of youth for the Lightning.
"They can play singles or doubles," Gerschultz said. "They're going to make a large impact, definitely. We're really excited ... they come in with a lot of experience. They know how to handle themselves.
"There's definitely more competition, because everyone wants to get the top spots on varsity. It makes us better, definitely."
Deckey, Byrd and Beder are experienced tournament players. Byrd, a lefty, smiled as she said that she's not really used to winning. It's not that way when she trains at the Woodbridge Tennis Club, which has produced countless junior tennis standouts in recent years.
"There's a lot of courts at Woodbridge, and I'm always at the bottom courts," she said. "It's just different coming here, and beating people. Down at Woodbridge, I'm always the one getting beat."
Longoria knows that Byrd can beat a lot of people this season. Deckey and Beder were already friends before coming to Sage Hill, since both attended Harbor Day School.
Deckey said the members of the freshman class are ready to make their mark.
"It's really exciting," she said. "Yes, we're nervous, because these girls have been playing with each other for a couple of years now. Coming in as new freshmen, we don't know the team as well as they do, but I feel like it's such an opportunity. They've had the experience. And Sage is a really welcoming, nice school. I don't think any of them gave us a hard time."
Quite the contrary. In some ways these freshmen are making the upperclassmen step up their game, said Sage senior Amira Tarsadia, who played at No. 2 singles last year.
"It's making us all work harder, seeing these freshmen come in and being so strong," Tarsadia said. "I think we're going to be a lot stronger than last year. To go back to the finals would be good. When I was freshman, we went to the CIF finals, and I just want to be back."
There's a lot of work to be done first. The Lightning would love to win the outright league title, after sharing it last year with rival St. Margaret's and Oxford Academy.
And a challenging preseason includes tournaments hosted by Sage Hill on each of the four weekends in September — the Lightning Invitational (Sept. 5-6), Compass Invitational (Sept. 12-13), Prep Classic (Sept. 19-20) and Coast Cup (Sept. 26-27).
But the freshmen are OK with this.
"If you want to succeed, then you have to put in the hours," Beder said.
Make no mistake, the Lightning do plan to succeed. And the freshmen have a certain degree of feistiness in them.
"Just because we're freshmen doesn't mean that we're easy to beat," Deckey said. "I mean, we made varsity for a reason, and that's because we're good. My goal, personally, is to show other schools that we're still just as good as they could be. Just because we're freshmen doesn't mean that we're lower than them."
Here's a look at how the five Newport-Mesa programs are shaping up for the 2014-15 season:
Corona del Mar
Coach: Brian Ricker (11th year)
Players to watch: Riley Gerdau (Sr.); Siena Sharf (Jr.); Danielle Willson (Fr.); Jasie Dunk (Soph.); Taylor Fogarty (Sr.); Erica Chen (Jr.); Shelby Anderson (Sr.); Camellia Edalat (Soph.); Paige Kenerson (Jr.).
You should know: The Sea Kings appear primed for another big season after advancing to the CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinals last year. They return seven regulars from that team, though they lost valuable four-year varsity players Lauren Thaxter and Kenzie Purcifull, as well as Kimmia Naaseh, to graduation.
Gerdau, who played singles last year, teams with Sharf at No. 1 doubles. They had a strong summer playing tournaments together. The No. 2 team is Chen and Fogarty, who also teamed together last year.
Willson steps into the No. 1 singles spot as a freshman. She also had a strong summer and is ranked No. 62 in Southern California in the 16s.
Ricker said this is one of his deepest teams in his time at CdM, with 12 or 13 good players. The schedule is tough, including nonleague matches against Los Alamitos, Santa Barbara, Laguna Beach and defending Division 1 champion Peninsula. And University, which was a Division 1 finalist, is always daunting. The Trojans have won four straight Pacific Coast League titles.
Coach: Benny Quinonez (second year)
Players to watch: Dilara Ozonur (Jr.); Laura Le (Sr.); Crystal Henriquez (Soph.).
You should know: Quinonez's Mustangs don't have their first match until they begin Orange Coast League play against defending champion Laguna Beach on Sept. 23. Before that, he hopes to see improvement from his team in practice. Last year, Mesa went winless in league and missed the CIF playoffs.
Ozonur improved a lot over the summer and looks to play singles this year for Costa Mesa. Le is a senior who leads by example and will probably play doubles. Last year, she shared the No. 1 doubles spot with graduate Mahina Won-Milho.
Henriquez, meanwhile, is an athletic sophomore who is great at placing the ball, Quinonez said.
Mesa graduated its top two singles players as well, including No. 1 Stephanie Rand. But Quinonez said the pride in the program seems to be increasing. Costa Mesa got its courts resurfaced and is getting all new fencing and lights, welcome renovations.
"Every year we see improvement," said Quinonez, a 2011 Costa Mesa graduate. "We have a lot of heart. That's all I want to see out of a program, people who actually care."
Coaches: Rachel de los Santos (14th year); Jay Gardner (first year)
Players to watch: Kinley Ohland (Jr.); Eden Steel (Jr.); Morgan Miller (Sr.); Lauren Weisser (Soph); Andrea Ponce (Sr.); Mikaela Soriano (Sr.); Mai Le (Sr.).
You should know: The Eagles lost just one starter to graduation, Doris Corona. But they lost another when senior Slade Garnett, also a standout basketball player, tore her ACL over the summer.
Estancia, though, does have strong returning players, paced by No. 1 singles player Ohland. De los Santos said that Ohland looked good during a scrimmage against Newport Harbor.
De los Santos split up last year's No. 1 doubles team, as Steel will play No. 2 singles. Miller will stay at No. 1 doubles with her new partner, Weisser.
Le, Ponce and Soriano also provide strong senior leadership for Estancia. Overall, de los Santos said she wants to see her team compete in league and challenge Calvary Chapel, which finished second in league last year, ahead of third-place Estancia.
Gardner, the varsity boys' coach who has been JV girls' coach for several years, is a co-varsity coach this year.
Coach: Kristen Case (eighth year)
Players to watch: Annie LaGrandeur (Sr.); Courtney Howarth (Sr.); Kendall Cosenza (Jr.); Anna Burke (Jr.); Jenn Kingsley (Jr.); Olivia Zehnder (Jr.); Elle Zielinski (Jr.); Nicole Knickerbocker (Fr.).
You should know: The Sailors, as always, seek to use their team unity as a strength. A lot of that will come from LaGrandeur and Howarth, who are senior co-captains.
Newport Harbor, which finished second in the Sunset League last year, has several returning doubles players. LaGrandeur will likely team with Zehnder, and Howarth with Zielinski. Meanwhile, Cosenza and Burke are back together after they finished a strong third at league individuals last year.
Kingsley returns in singles and Knickerbocker is a talented freshman ranked No. 128 in SoCal in the 14s. They will be key pieces on the singles side for the Sailors, who lost Kate Knight, their No. 1 each of the last years, to graduation.
Case said that winning league remains the goal, but she understands that her team will need to improve in stages.
Coach: A.G. Longoria (14th year)
Players to watch: Jaclyn Gerschultz (Jr.); Amira Tarsadia (Sr.); Celine Wang (Jr.); Marina Anderson (Jr.); Tess Alexander (Sr.); Maya Byrd (Fr.); Isabella Deckey (Fr.); Stephanie Beder (Fr.).
You should know: The Lightning have high hopes for another Academy League title, after winning league outright in 2012 and sharing it with St. Margaret's and Oxford Academy last year. Sage Hill returns eight of nine starters from that team, including Gerschultz, the league singles MVP.
Gerschultz, Wang and Tarsadia, who went a combined 50-17 in league last year, are all back in singles. Yet Sage also enters a very talented freshman class led by Byrd, Deckey and Beder and also including Nataly Shayan Smith and Melissa Heard.
Sage Hill could be a force in CIF Southern Section Division 2 and looks for a deeper postseason run than last year, when the Lightning lost to Arcadia in the second round.