NEWPORT BEACH – As the Newport Harbor High girls' tennis team closed in on its third straight Sunset League title Thursday afternoon, the Sailors turned their attention to a certain little girl of a similar age.
Poppy, 2, is the younger sister of team member Kelsey Christensen. She is also quite possibly the team's biggest fan. She's at many of the matches, bopping around the tennis courts. On Thursday, the Sailors asked Poppy to sing some Justin Bieber, and she obliged to everyone's delight.
"She's our little cheerleader," senior Lauren Conway said. "She's always happy. You come off an intense set and you look at Poppy and she's just so happy."
The Sailors could be happy too after beating Edison, 13-5, to clinch that third straight league title with a match still to go. It was sweet for the team's three senior starters of Conway and the doubles team of Alex Aiello and Riley Mathies, all of whom have been on varsity since they were sophomores.
The team did a bit of reflection after winning the match, sitting on one of the doubles courts in a circle. Aiello said the Sailors (16-2, 9-0 in league) partially talked about all the conditioning and practicing they did over the summer.
It's all worth it now. Coach Kristen Case is proud of her team, which is positioned to make a run in the CIF Southern Section Division II playoffs. The Sailors have been ranked No. 2 in the division for the last several weeks.
"They put in so much work over the summer, throughout the preseason and even in the beginning of league," Case said. "They're just a perfect example that hard work and dedication pays off. They're so committed to each other. It's constant support and constant positivity, which is sometimes hard to create in a team atmosphere. I think that they get what it means to be a team, which makes this process so special … Everybody on this team is irreplaceable."
Edison (11-4, 7-2) has been the toughest competition in league; Newport Harbor won, 11-7, on the road in the teams' first meeting. Like in that first meeting, the Sailors' three doubles teams (Christina Young and Ricki Archie, Megan Bathen and Mindy Wheeler as well as Mathies and Aiello) all swept Thursday.
Young and Archie, who was subbed out in the third round, are still undefeated in league. Young and Holly Hovnanian earned a 6-0 win in the final round.
This time the singles players did better as well, winning four sets instead of two. Edison junior Sarah Stadfelt swept her three sets, but Newport Harbor freshman Natalie Cernius got a big 6-2 win over Edison senior Brittany Pham at No. 2 singles in the opening round.
Case said Cernius had lost in a tiebreaker to Pham in the teams' first meeting, and she got the revenge she wanted. The Sailors were up, 9-3, after two rounds, and Cernius also clinched the match after her singles win in the third round.
No. 1 singles player Blake Bakkila and Conway each won a set over the Chargers' No. 3 player.
"We knew that today was such a really big match, and we really wanted to not have all the weight upon doubles," said Conway, a team captain. "We kind of wanted to hold our weight, too, but their No. 1 and 2 girls are really strong. That was really amazing how Nat came out and won against that girl. I think we just came out firing; today we were super-pumped and really determined."
Case expects that from her three seniors. She said all three have led the team in different ways. The Sailors have been consistent all year, even after the top two singles players from a year ago decided not to play.
"Each year, we've lost some pretty important players," Aiello said of the team's three-year run. "But we've always come back stronger every year."