Freshmen? Yes. Fresh faces? Yes. Inexperienced competitors who might fold at the top levels of high school play? No way.
Throughout Southern California, there are many examples of freshmen girls taking leadership roles on their tennis teams -- and winning individual accolades for themselves.
Play begins Saturday at five Southern Section regional preliminaries filled with freshmen who have advanced by finishing second or better in league competition.
In two of the region's strongest circuits, the Serra and South Coast leagues, the singles championship was decided in all-freshmen matchups.
Santa Ana Mater Dei's Michelle Murphy defeated Molly Scott of Santa Margarita in the Serra League; Mission Viejo's Maggie Mello downed Micaela Hein of San Clemente to win the South Coast title.
"You can hardly hit a tennis ball without hitting a good freshman," Irvine Northwood Coach Seth Sushinsky said. "In a couple years, the competition in the leagues is going to be unbelievable."
It is difficult to pinpoint why so many first-year high school players are experiencing such success, but many observers say the growth of women's professional tennis is a primary reason.
"We're starting to see the benefits of how they've marketed tennis to little girls," Mater Dei Coach Richard Berman said. "They're coming to us now, and they're tournament-seasoned."
Indeed, for some, high school tennis provides a break from even more competitive levels of play. Many of the top ninth-graders are ranked age-group players used to playing tough matches under pressure.
Mello, winner of the Southern California Tennis Assn. girls' 14 section title last year and a finalist in the girls' 16s sectionals last summer, said she played for Mission Viejo this fall "to represent my school and maybe help out the other girls a little bit so the team gets better."
Corona del Mar, No. 5 in the final regular-season rankings by The Times, has four freshmen in its lineup -- Jill Damion, Jillian Braverman and twins Hayley and Mirada Young -- and Coach Scott Feichter says he won't be surprised if the team meets or beats its accomplishments of last year, when a squad of mostly seniors made it to the Division I semifinals.
Nearly all of the top-ranked teams in the region have at least one freshman playing a significant role. Top-ranked Rolling Hills Estates Peninsula has three, as does North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake, the team Peninsula bounced from the playoffs on Tuesday, including Mission League singles champion Hilary Barte.
Second-ranked North Hollywood Campbell Hall has Katarina Reveche, whose older sister, Cheyenne, is the team standout. Fourth-ranked Calabasas has Erin Wiesener; No. 7 Dana Point Dana Hills has four freshmen, as does No. 8 Mater Dei, Murphy and No. 2 singles player Leslie Bullock among them.
Ninth-ranked Santa Barbara has five freshmen -- Brooke Robertson, Kristin Teufel, Kelly Hart, Kristin Franz and Bethany Miller -- in its lineup.
Other top ninth-graders include Long Beach Poly's Vania King, ranked No. 3 in Southern California and No. 7 nationally in the USTA girls' 18's; Academy League singles champion Bianca Aboubakare of Anaheim Fairmont Prep; Serra League doubles champion Elizabeth Van't Hof of Mater Dei, and teammate Kelli Kawabe; Irvine Northwood's Catherine Yoo; Lauren Ritz and Danielle Erb of Thousand Oaks; Brittney Rosen of Laguna Hills; Los Angeles Marlborough's Jane Huh; Sarah Geocaris and Stephanie Langer of Newport Beach Sage Hill; and Palisades' Olivia Colman, among the top singles players in the City Section.
At Santa Margarita, Serra League runner-up Scott is joined by fellow freshman Darika Fears at the top of the lineup, leaving Coach Eric Michaut to joke about his role in developing his team the next three-plus seasons. "My only responsibility," he said, "is to try not to screw them up."