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La Quinta’s Honor Roll of Tennis Champions Continues

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s easy to be caught unaware of La Quinta High School’s rich boys’ tennis history, so each year Dave Smith types out a five-page chronicle and hands it to his freshmen.

The first lesson La Quinta tennis players learn is Aztec history. Read and learn. There is no pop quiz later. It’s strictly for personal enrichment.

Smith, like his father, Bruce, before him, is a good teacher and coach.

La Quinta’s tradition extends from here to . . .

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Well, the Wall of Fame starts in front of the school’s lunchroom, continues down the hallway, past Smith’s classroom and around the corner, spanning 23 seasons of winning tennis.

The honor roll of champions is there.

And clippings from newspapers.

The Streak, too.

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Since 1969, La Quinta’s varsity, junior varsity and frosh/soph teams have won 682 Garden Grove League matches, lost nine and tied one. The Aztecs haven’t lost a league match since 1988 when they were beaten twice by Los Amigos, a streak of 79 victories. Once, they won 398 in a row before the varsity stumbled in 1981.

Some students walk the corridor, oblivious to the pictures and the articles. Others stop to look and read. Some of them go out for the team. An average season yields a 50-man roster.

Others come merely to watch. More than 400 jammed the bleachers to see a 1982 Southern Section playoff match against a Laguna Beach team that featured Rick Leach.

Still, there are names and dates that only Smith remembers, so he keeps a detailed year-by-year history as much to inspire as to inform newcomers and alumni. He hopes the uninitiated will understand what they’re getting into.

“I hope this will kindle a spark of desire in each of you to become part of this great legacy,” Smith writes. “Many of you may even become historic names in our Hall of Fame. But I want each of you to know a little about your past and set some goals for your future.”

Page 1: In 1969, Bruce Smith moved to La Quinta from Bolsa Grande to jump-start the Aztecs’ sagging athletic fortunes. He coached varsity football and tennis. The Streak began and in 1970 the tennis team won the school’s first Garden Grove League title in any sport.

Page 2: From 1972-76, La Quinta advanced to the 3-A semifinals once and the quarterfinals twice. A 5-foot, 87-pound junior named Rodger Hillie won the league singles title in 1974.

Page 3: After losing to San Marino in the 1977 and ’78 3-A championships matches, La Quinta beat the Titans for the ’79 title. By 1980, The Streak had grown to 375 league victories without a loss.

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Page 4: Mater Dei, playing tennis in the league at that time, beat La Quinta’s varsity, ending The Streak at 398 in 1981. Hillie died in an auto accident that year. Bruce Smith died of a heart attack on June 29, 1984, at age 55.

Page 5: Dave Smith left Garden Grove to take his father’s place before the 1985 season. Los Amigos beat La Quinta twice to win the league title. At season’s end, Smith vowed that no league team would beat La Quinta again while he’s coaching.

So far it hasn’t happened.

“Do we have anybody who belongs to a club?” Smith can’t remember, so he asked Peter Lam, half of La Quinta’s best doubles team.

Puzzled, Lam thought a minute before answering. “Glee Club?”

“No, no,” Smith said. “Does anybody belong to a tennis club?”

Lam: “Oh, no.”

Fact is, La Quinta has rarely had a club-trained player. Most are self-taught, straight from local public courts.

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Some have never played before but heard it was a lot of fun, and thought it would be fun to be a part of a winning team, so they tried out.

“I’ve never cut anyone,” Smith said. “My dad never cut anyone.”

There is a very good reason for this. His name is Hien Ngo.

Last season, Ngo was the No. 20 singles player on the frosh/soph team. “I was tempted to cut him,” Smith said. “He showed no natural ability.”

It took awhile, but finally Ngo began to show promise.

This season, Ngo, a sophomore, is the fourth-best player on the varsity. Most matches, he plays No. 1 doubles with Lam, and the two are 12-0 in league play.

“There you get an idea of what kids can do when they want to work and have motivation,” Smith said. “You just never know who will blossom, who will work hard.”

La Quinta has had 23 seasons of players like Ngo.

Take the Du brothers--Hung, Thanah and Loi--for another instance.

Hung, a senior who combs his hair up in a “palm tree” as Smith describes it and plays doubles, was prom king. Thanah, a junior, plays singles. Loi, a freshman doubles player, might become the best of the three, having started at a younger age than his brothers.

They are typical La Quinta players. They weren’t raised at a swank country club. They didn’t have lessons or coaching until they began playing for Smith.

“These are home-grown kids,” said Jim Perry, La Quinta athletic director. “And he coaches the hell out of them.”

It’s a simple system, but it works.

“The one thing is they get a lot of numbers,” said Bob Walton, a former Santiago coach now at Laguna Beach. “They always get the kids who come out. It’s always impressed me the way the student body comes out to watch. (Bruce Smith) used to get the football players out to watch. Corona del Mar doesn’t get that kind of support. University doesn’t. We don’t.”

Sadly for La Quinta, the dynasty, at least the part Dave Smith and his father have built since 1969, will end soon. As early as June, in fact.

Smith is quitting after the school year to be with his wife, Kerri, who will attend medical school at the University of Arizona.

Other than that, his plans are uncertain.

“I don’t know if I’ll coach,” Smith said. “It’s a whole new world for me. I’m apprehensive. There’s a sense of adventure.

“To up and leave is very difficult. The tough part is having to leave the program with the caliber and class we’ve had. But there’s no question, I’m going to be with my wife.”

Before he leaves, though, Smith has one more season to add to his Aztec history lesson.

“I’ll tell you, this could be the best team we’ve had here,” he said.


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