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UNSTRUNG : Pressure Is Off Pierce Tennis Team as 9-Year, 97-Game Win Streak Ends

Times Staff Writer

More than nine years and 97 matches after it began, The Streak finally ended Monday for the Pierce College men’s tennis team.

The Brahmas lost a Metropolitan Conference match for the first time since April 3, 1976, coming up short against Harbor, 5-1, at Pierce.

But there was no need afterward to keep sharp objects and sleeping pills away from Pierce Coach Paul Xanthos, whose team had won the community college division of the prestigious Ojai Tournament 24 hours earlier and had already clinched a share of its ninth straight Metro championship.

Xanthos said last year that the streak “tears you up” and that sometimes he wished it would end “so it would take the pressure off.”

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So the loss provided relief?

“It did,” Xanthos said Tuesday, sitting in a shack near the Pierce tennis courts that serves as his office. “When I saw we were getting beaten, under normal circumstances--normal for me--I would really be excited. I would really be angry at losing a match. I didn’t feel that yesterday.

“The other team played so well and my players tried so hard that I couldn’t blame my players because none of them quit. They fought tooth and nail right to the last point, so I couldn’t get angry with them.”

Of course, this was a man still giddy from the excitement of winning at the Ojai Tournament, where he had first played as a freshman at Los Angeles City College in 1939.

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A self-taught player--he learned the game from a book by tennis great Don Budge that still sits in his office--the 64-year-old Xanthos came to Pierce in 1965 after playing for Roosevelt High, LACC and Occidental and coaching at North Hollywood for 17 years.

Twenty times he had taken his Pierce teams to Ojai and 20 times he had returned home empty-handed. Finally, on his 21st trip, Xanthos and the Brahmas on Sunday brought home the Gorham Cup that goes to the winners.

Over the weekend, freshman Jonas Wallgard from Sweden won the singles championship, sophomore Leo Valencia from Taft High reached the singles semifinals, and Wallgard and sophomore David Yablon from El Camino Real reached the doubles final.

Then, on Monday, the streak came crashing to a halt.

“It happened so quick,” said Yablon, who lost to Harbor’s Tom Hays, 6-4, 6-1, after beating Hays in Pierce’s 5-4 win over the Seahawks earlier this year.

In the previous match, Yablon said, he hadn’t played for two weeks before getting out of his sickbed to beat Hays.

Said Yablon: “I went into this match thinking that, since I wasn’t feeling good last time when I beat the guy, I really didn’t think I was going to lose this time.”

But Yablon, who had not lost a conference match this season, was not the only disappointment for Pierce. Jon McKee, a freshman from Agoura High, also had been unbeaten in Metro play until he lost in straight sets to Harbor’s Steve Bennett, 6-4, 7-6.

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Valencia and Tetsuyoshi Matsumura also lost to opponents they had beaten earlier--Valencia to Dan Wooten, 6-3, 4-6, 6-1, and Matsumura to Rodney Gabuya, 6-3, 6-3. Valencia had beaten Wooten in the quarterfinals at Ojai. Wallgard was Pierce’s only winner, taking the first set from Mark Weidmann before Weidmann defaulted because of a back injury.

“They played really well,” Yablon said of Harbor. “Every match was pretty close--at least it seemed that way--but before I knew it, it was over.”

Valencia said the Brahmas looked “really sharp” as they warmed up. “We thought, ‘We’re going to blow these guys out.’ But it went the other way.”

Xanthos, whose overall record at Pierce is 371-78, said the victory at Ojai “may have taken a little of the edge off, but I still cannot take any of the credit away from Harbor.”

The match had been rescheduled three times and finally was wedged between the Ojai tournament and the opening round of the Southern California regional championships. Pierce beat Cuesta, 6-0, Tuesday to advance to Monday’s semifinals against Grossmont.

Still, Xanthos expected to defeat Harbor and extend the streak.

“But I didn’t count on the type of play we came across,” he said. “They were really up for the match. They were emotionally very high. They played excellent tennis--everyone on their team.

“In tennis, when a player can’t miss a shot, or he is hitting everything smooth--everything is hitting lines--they say the player is in a zone, or the player is zoning. Yesterday, all their players were zoning. It’s not that my players played so badly. It’s just that (Harbor’s) were zoning. They couldn’t miss. Anything they tried, worked. It was just one of those days.”

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Pierce hadn’t had one of those days in quite a while.

The streak almost ended at 17 on a March day in 1978. But with the team score tied at 4-4 and Pasadena’s No. 3 doubles team leading, 5-2, in the third set and serving for the match, Rene Lamart and Ken Goldman of Pierce rallied to win in a tiebreaker and extend the streak.

Seventy-nine matches later, the streak was still alive.

Ironically, Yablon had written “97" in two-inch letters on the score sheet after Pierce’s 7-2 victory over Long Beach on April 22. Yablon had never done that before, Xanthos said, and a week later, the streak had ended.

“I really didn’t have any kind of reaction,” Xanthos said of his first realization Monday that the Brahmas were going to lose. “I just saw it happening and said, ‘Well, it’s about time.’ What are you going to say? You get the feeling that you can’t have everything.”

After Xanthos took over as Pierce coach in 1965, his teams won their first 50 conference matches. “We thought that was pretty good,” he said.

But this one was better.

“In a way, you hate to see it end because you’d like to go over 100,” Xanthos said. “But it’s over. . . . Every good thing must come to an end, I guess.”


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