NEWPORT BEACH — Something seemed strange, out of place at The Tennis Club Thursday.
Yes, the Rio Mesa High girls’ tennis team from Oxnard played its best match of the season to upset Sage Hill. But there was something more. The Lightning’s 11-7 loss in the CIF Southern Section Division IV semifinal match left Sage Hill with a glaring oddity.
Coach A.G. Longoria calls senior Julia Blakeley the best player to have ever competed in his successful program that started at the beginning of this decade. Yet, the Lightning were not able to win a CIF section title with Blakeley leading the way the past three seasons.
Longoria stressed that Blakeley certainly did her part, trying to help No. 2-seeded Sage Hill win its first CIF section championship since 2005. She led the Lightning to the CIF Division IV title match last year, when they lost, 10-8 to St. Margaret’s.
In her three years at Sage Hill, she dropped only one set during postseason play, Longoria said. Blakeley started at Sage Hill as a sophomore after spending a season at University High and then a semester as a home-school student.
“She did her part,” Longoria said. “Like [Thursday], she did her part. But we just couldn’t score enough around her.”
Against unbeaten Rio Mesa (24-0), Blakeley swept, 6-0, 6-1, 6-0. She had plenty of time between her sets because she finished off her opponent so quickly. She used that down time to support her teammates on other courts. She did her best to calm the other players as it was a stressful time, especially after the Spartans won the first round, 4-2.
Sage Hill sophomores Katie Bick and Rian Billingsley lost their opening set, as they were edged, 7-6 (6). Junior Devyn Billingsley and sophomore Casey Astorino, the Lightning’s No. 3 doubles team, fought off eight set points, but still fell, 7-5, while the momentum swung in the Spartans’ favor.
“It’s tough,” Blakeley said of Sage Hill’s loss. “We almost closed it out. We came close. Everyone was giving 100% out there so you can’t complain. You’re going to miss shots. It happens. You just work hard and you learn from the mistakes.”
Blakeley’s three wins were the only victories in singles for the Lightning (16-9). Bick and Rian Billingsley earned two wins, as did the No. 1 doubles team of senior Dominique Moore and freshman Liana Korber.
Moore and Korber opened with a 6-2 win, dealing Rio Mesa’s Claire Willey and Jenna Dobrin their first loss of the season. The Spartans duo entered with a 45-0 record, yet also lost to Bick and Rian Billingsley.
“The difference in the match for us was our No. 2 doubles team, a team that has not won as much, but has peaked late in the season,” said Rio Mesa Coach Steve Worthington, whose team will be making its first CIF final appearance in the 28 years he’s been at the school. “We came down here knowing that Sage Hill was an outstanding team and has proven it over the years. We knew we weren’t going to be favored and for us to even perform at a level that was competitive we had to go beyond what we’ve done in the past.”
Moore was surprised with the Spartans’ effort.
“I don’t think we expected them to be better [than us], to be honest,” she said. “But they played a great match.
“I definitely thought we were going to the finals. It’s definitely disappointing because it’s my senior year. But everybody made a great effort. I’m really proud of the team.”