Bakkila motors Harbor's fast start

Blake Bakkila just got her driver's license after turning 16 last month.

It makes sense, then, that she revels in her role as the sparkplug for the Newport Harbor High girls' tennis team.

Bakkila, a junior, has perhaps the most prominent spot on the team since she plays No. 1 singles. Yet that number means little to Bakkila and her teammates; every Sailor is valuable.

"On our team, we don't really discuss the numbers," said Bakkila, the Daily Pilot High School Athlete of the Week.

Bakkila, though, had a couple of impressive numbers after her team routed Sage Hill, 16-2, on Tuesday. She started the year off 7-2 in singles.

Another impressive number last week for the Sailors was two. They pulled off two upsets in their first two matches, beating Laguna Beach then Northwood by identical 11-7 scores.

Coach Kristen Case calls Bakkila the ultimate team player. More often, she calls her "Blakers."

"The most awesome thing about Blake is that she's just so passionate," Case said. "She's passionate about the sport of tennis and she's passionate about her team. I'd say that's my favorite part about coaching her, that she absolutely loves her team. Every time she gets on the court, she wants to win for herself but more for them."

Tennis has always been a big part of Bakkila's life. She's been playing since she was 5 years old, and competitively since she was 10. She followed after her mother, Corey, who also played for Newport Harbor and was also a No. 1 singles player before graduating in 1986.

"I didn't really want to play anything else," Blake Bakkila said. "I wasn't really into the contact sports."

It's an athletic family. Younger sister Baylee, a seventh grader at Ensign Intermediate, also plays tennis. Her father, Victor, did go the contact sport route, playing water polo at University High and later at Saddleback College and Fresno State.

Blake has long been a tournament tennis player, but she thrives in the team atmosphere that high school provides. Her freshman year at Harbor, she was a substitute player. Last year, she played at No. 3 singles, but was steady enough to get plenty of sets against other teams' No. 1 and No. 2 players.

"I'm enjoying all the playing time I'm getting," Bakkila said. "I think being on the team has really helped me as a player, and I credit Kristen and the rest of my teammates … The bond between us is unbreakable. We're so together. We're always here for each other."

Two teammates didn't return this year. The Sailors' No. 1 and No. 2 singles players from a year ago, freshman Samantha Stalder and junior Rebecca Arnold, decided not to come back to pursue other opportunities.

Stalder wanted to spend time with her private coach and Arnold was busy with an internship and job over the spring and summer, when Case had mandatory conditioning and practice sessions.

Bakkila has hopped to the top of the Sailors singles food chain, as she hopes to lead the team to its third straight Sunset League title.

Whatever the Sailors do, it's clear they will do it as a team. Case calls the players her "beasts," and she is "Mama beast."

Lately, Bakkila has been playing in beast mode.

"She's very aware," Case said. "She's aware of when she needs to get focused; she's aware of when her teammates need her. Her awareness is really what helps her just be in the moment, and do what needs to be done in that moment. She's so mentally tough. She will always fight back, no matter what.

"In our Northwood match, she lost her first set to their No. 1. Pretty rough set, and she came right back and won the next two pretty easy. She fired back up. "

Bakkila has that fighter's spirit. She sees it on the professional level when her family travels to the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells each year. Her favorite pro player? Bakkila said it's probably Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, the No. 2 women's player in the world known for her warm personality.

"She's an amazing tennis player," Bakkila said. "She seems like a really positive person."

The Sailors have one too.

She's at the wheel.

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