Hard Work Turns Garden Grove Tennis Into a Winner
Tennis and Garden Grove High School haven’t always been a match.
Only a few years ago, the school’s junior varsity team used to forfeit sets in each match because it didn’t have enough players.
And Kevin Starnes, who played on a Southern Section title team at La Quinta before taking over the Garden Grove program, remembers searching far and wide for prospective varsity players.
“Tennis was certainly not a sport thought of very much around here by any means,” he said.
Training students who, for the most part, never held a tennis racket before ninth grade, Starnes, girls’ Coach William Lou and current boys’ Coach Damon Robbins have developed some of the most successful tennis teams in the county. And they’ve done it at Garden Grove High.
In five seasons, Lou has guided the girls to three consecutive Garden Grove League titles. The Argonauts are 53-7 over the last three years and nearly all of the singles and doubles players will return next fall.
The boys were 65-3 in league play from 1992 to 1997 with Starnes as coach. Last season, the Argonauts went to the Southern Section Division III semifinals, where they went to the last set before losing a 10-8 heartbreaker to Westlake Village Westlake.
Garden Grove recently won its 100th consecutive boys’ varsity league tennis match and, under Robbins, a former European youth coach, is considered a shoo-in for its seventh consecutive team title.
Starnes, who played on La Quinta’s 1979 Southern Section 3-A championship tennis team, arrived as a teacher at Garden Grove in 1989. That was 25 years after the Argonauts’ boys program last won a league title.
He gave 20 to 30 weekly private lessons, usually 30 minutes, to prospective players just to create interest, he said.
Jason Choi, Garden Grove’s top singles player, said Starnes had to overcome more than just a talent gap.
“Asian parents are worried about your grades. They don’t want you to play sports,” Choi said of the cultural gap Starnes had to solve at a school where Asian Americans make up 40% of the student population. “They want you to be more successful than they are now. Sports are something you do for fun, not something you spend money or time on.”
Choi, Garden Grove’s top singles player, was a forward on the freshman basketball team before he discovered tennis. Likewise, Kevin Kim, Garden Grove’s No. 2 singles and top doubles player, had never touched a tennis racket until he met Starnes.
“I was watching a friend play and I got bored,” Kim said. “I picked up the racket and started hitting. I fell in love with it.”
Ron Zajec, the school’s co-athletic director, said the key to the success of Starnes, Lou and now Robbins, has been putting the team first.
“We got to the semifinals last year playing against teams with better individual players than us, but none had the strength through the lineup from No. 1 through No. 7 like we did,” Zajec said.
Van Ngo, a junior on the girls’ team, said she believes Garden Grove players actually have an advantage over the tennis-club set. Garden Grove High charges each student $35 annually to play tennis, and that includes participation in summer tennis classes. A half-hour private lesson usually costs more than that.
She also said she believes that Garden Grove coaches really care about their players, both personally and academically.
“With [the tennis clubs], they’re all about [winning at] tennis,” Ngo said. “Here, we’re all about family.”
Starnes quit as boys’ coach at the end of last season, frustrated after the Southern Section announced it would enforce regulations preventing tennis coaches from teaching their players privately during the school year.
Recently, Starnes was hanging around the tennis courts to watch the team practice.
Robbins, a 1984 Estancia graduate, admits it’s no easy chore stepping into Starnes’ shoes.
“Basically, it’s my job to carry the torch,” Robbins said.