TEAM PLAYER

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marissa Irvin is certainly the best player at Harvard-Westlake High, maybe including the boys.

The senior is probably one of the best high school players in the nation, much less Southern California, and will be a favorite to win the Southern Section championship.

But to most high school coaches and players from the region, Irvin is mostly a mystery.

Unlike the past three years, when Irvin, 17, concentrated on national and international junior tournaments, she will play at least part-time for the Wolverines this year.

Fresh off an upset victory with partner Alexandra Stevenson in the junior doubles final at the U.S. Open last week, Irvin, who lives in Santa Monica, can make a potentially huge impact.

Harvard-Westlake finished second in the Mission League behind Chaminade last season. With the addition of Irvin and freshman Stephanie Berg to go with senior Lindsy Forbess, the Wolverines will not only challenge the Eagles, but they could also make a run at the Southern Section Division III title if the doubles teams come through.

While many high school players who are ranked nationally choose not to play for their high schools, playing for the Wolverines was always in the back of Irvin's mind.

"I wanted to play even as a freshman," Irvin said. "I love the concept of playing with a team. But there were too many requirements from the [Harvard-Westlake] coach. It just couldn't work out."

Under previous coach Richard Kinuya, Irvin would have had to practice and play with the Wolverines more than her schedule would allow.

Kinuya resigned following last season and new Coach Jennifer Dohr welcomed Irvin, relaxing the restrictions. Because Irvin will play in several tournaments this fall, Dohr and Irvin will plan her high school schedule on a week-to-week basis.

"We're going to have to play it by ear," Dohr said. "Some tournaments she'll be gone for a day, some might be four or five. But she's really enthusiastic about playing for us.

"As long as she's caught up on school, she said she'll play."

Irvin will practice 12-15 hours a week at Riveria Country Club with her private coaches, who have given their blessing.

"As long as it doesn't interfere with my tournament schedule, the decision is ultimately mine, and I wanted to play," Irvin said.

But even a perfect high school season--say winning a Southern Section individual and/or team titles--will be tough to compete with Irvin's summer experience.

Irvin left school in May to play in the junior draws of the Italian and French opens. After returning home for a week to take finals, Irvin traveled to England to play at Wimbledon.

"It was an amazing experience," Irvin said. "Every tennis star you can think of, I saw them. I was in the locker room with them."

Irvin and her partner, Aubrie Rippner, reached the junior doubles semifinals at Wimbledon, but Irvin was forced to scramble for another partner when Rippner decided not play in the United States Tennis Assn. national championships in San Jose last month.

Irvin teamed with Stevenson, a former rival, and won the girls' 18s doubles title.

In New York, they made a memorable run to the U.S. Open final, where sixth-seeded Irvin and Stevenson defeated top-seeded Cara Black and Irina Seljutina, 6-2, 7-6 (7-2), on Saturday.

Wearing her U.S. National team gear and a red, white and blue bandanna, Irvin had plenty of crowd support.

"It wasn't the big stadium but we played in one of the show courts," Irvin said. "The entire main grandstand was full and they were cheering for us."

Irvin realized how far she had come while practicing one day during the U.S. Open. On one side of her was Martina Hingis, the women's champion. On the other was hard-serving Australian Mark Philippoussis and Patrick Rafter, the eventual men's champion.

"I just had to sit back and watch for a little bit," Irvin said.

When it comes to high school, she won't have to watch anymore.

Other players to watch:

Shervin Saedinia, Calabasas, junior: Saedinia will have to be the leader of the Coyotes, who don't have a senior on the varsity. Ranked 13th in the SCTA's 16-and-under division, Saedinia teamed with Debra Pepkowitz to reach the Southern Section doubles final in 1996. Saedinia was 59-1 in singles last season.

Jenny Munroe, Hart, freshman: Perhaps the best freshman in the region, Munroe will help offset the loss of Jieun Jacobs, the Foothill League champion who transferred to a tennis academy in Ojai. Munroe is ranked 19th by the SCTA in the girls' 14s and should help Hart compete with Burroughs and Burbank for the league title.

Lindsy Forbess, Harvard-Westlake, senior: Ranked 56th in the girls' 18s by the SCTA, Forbess was the Mission League champion and was 49-8 last season, including 11-1 in the playoffs as the Wolverines reached the Division III semifinals. Forbess will team with Irvin and freshman Stephanie Berg to form a formidable singles group.

Shaland Romero, Burroughs, senior: The top returning player in the Foothill League, Romero lost only to Jacobs in league matches. She has helped the Indians to three consecutive league titles.

Leslie Musser, Van Nuys, senior: The best player among area City Section schools, Messer is fully recovered from a knee injury that kept her from competing last season. She reached the quarterfinals in the individual tournament the past two seasons.

Teresa Galido, Chaminade, junior: She led the Eagles to the Mission League title and an undefeated season until the Division IV final. She had a 40-9 record and lost to Forbess in league final.

Khushchehr Italia, Buckley, Junior: Among the smaller schools in the region, Italia is the biggest talent. She's ranked 22nd by the SCTA in the 16s.

Angela Chen and Lyndsey Tadlock, Thousand Oaks, seniors: The Lancers will go as far as this duo can take them. Chen was 16-8 in singles and 11-1 in doubles, Tadlock 20-4 and 11-7 last season with most of the losses coming to Helena Horak of Westlake and Darian Chappell of Camarillo. Thousand Oaks will compete with Camarillo, Westlake and possibly Agoura for the league title.

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AT A GLANCE

* THE PROVEN: Westlake advanced to the Southern Section Division III final and should contend for a Marmonte League title again although the Warriors will have to do it without senior Helena Horak, who was 70-2 last season. Horak decided not to play for the team this season, according to Westlake Coach Connie Flanderka. Senior Jennifer Azevedo is the top returnee. . . . Chaminade won the Mission League title last year and was undefeated until the Division IV final. The Eagles will be a contender for a section title again with their top five players back. . . . Calabasas is without a senior but the Coyotes usually compete for a division title. Coach Bill Bellatty usually has strong singles players but is relying on doubles depth. . . . Van Nuys, a City Section 4-A school competing in a 3-A league, is unchallenged in the Valley Pac-8 Conference, especially with the return of senior Leslie Musser and with fledging programs at conference rivals Sylmar, Poly and Reseda.

* THE PROMISING: With nationally ranked Marissa Irvin playing high school tennis for the first time and freshman Stephanie Berg joining holdover Lindsy Forbess, Harvard-Westlake will challenge Chaminade for the Mission League title. . . . Granada Hills lost several seniors from a 14-1 squad that reached the City 4-A semifinals, but with three solid incoming players, the Highlanders should get better as the season progresses. A good test will be the season opener Sept. 18 at Van Nuys. . . . Thousand Oaks has experience in seniors Angela Chen and Lyndsey Tadlock and has a chance at the Marmonte League title.

* FAST FACT: La Reina has not lost a Tri-Valley League match since 1987.

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