It took three years, but the Villa Park High badminton team finally won the Southern Section Division I title, thanks in large part to the dominating play of Mesinee Mangkalakiri and Raymond Wong, The Times' Orange County players of the year.
It is the third consecutive year that Mangkalakiri, a senior and a member of the U.S. national team, has received the girls' honor. During the team's three-year existence, Mangkalakiri lost only one match. She won three section mixed doubles' titles, two girls' doubles titles and one girls' singles title. In the team finals this year, she gave up only one point in singles.
Villa Park co-Coach Sherry Smith said Mangkalakiri's experience and motivation were vital to the Spartans, who won a title they had been expected to win for three years.
"She was definitely a leader on the team," Smith said. "I'm so happy she was able to win the team title before she left."
For Mangkalakiri, 17, who didn't begin playing badminton until the age of 13, a team title was the only obstacle left in her dominating prep career.
No matter who she partnered with, Mangkalakiri won. Known to her teammates as May, she won each of her doubles titles with a different partner. Her only defeat in high school was in the Southern Section individuals last year, when she lost to Alhambra Keppel's Elie Wu, the fourth-ranked women's singles player in the nation. Mangkalakiri is ranked seventh.
It hasn't been easy for Mangkalakiri, who constantly heard snipes from opponents about Villa Park's talent-laden team. When the junior national training program moved to the Orange County Badminton Club three years ago and the majority of the team enrolled at Villa Park, other teams in the county protested.
The Spartans, who now have five members of the U.S. national team on their roster, had a hard time getting teams to play them.
"I've never understood why everyone hated us so much, especially since we didn't even win the title my first two years," Mangkalakiri said. "I'm just happy we finally won."
A big part of the Spartans' success can be attributed to the addition of Wong. The Spartans lacked a strong core of boys until this season, when Wong, Eric Go and Jonathan Taryoto joined the squad.
Wong, a junior who is a member of the national team, couldn't be coaxed into playing for the Spartans until this year.
He was undefeated in all his matches and won the Southern Section boys' singles and mixed doubles titles. He defeated Long Beach Poly's Nicholas Jinadasa, also a national team member, 5-15, 15-6, 15-5, for the singles title. He teamed with Mangkalakiri to win the mixed doubles title, defeating teammates Go and Connie Hwang, 15-13, 15-9, in the final.
"Raymond is a leader by example," Smith said. "He's not a go-go-go player like May. He is quiet. But he watches everyone play and will give advice when needed."
Wong is ranked 17th in the nation in men's singles, and seventh in doubles with Villa Park teammate Mike Chansawangpuvana.
"Doubles is really Raymond's strong suit," Smith said. "But that is what is so great about him. He played wherever we needed him."