Looking like a champion

NEWPORT BEACH — None of the members of the Newport Harbor High girls' tennis team could remember a crowd this big.

Fans, other student-athletes and parents packed the corridor between the singles and doubles courts Thursday. Others chose to watch from near the locker rooms on the south side of the courts.

Midway through the second round, the Sailors' varsity football team walked by after their practice at Davidson Field.

"Stay focused, girls," Newport Harbor Coach Kristen Case said, knowing that it wouldn't be an issue.

Not with this team.

The Sailors have been focused all year. Now, they are one match away from history.

Newport Harbor swept in doubles and beat Arcadia, 13-5, in the CIF Southern Section Division II semifinal match on Thursday. The top-seeded Sailors will play San Marino in the final at 11:30 a.m. Monday at The Claremont Club.

San Marino won on games at Santa Barbara in the other Division II semifinal.

The team aspect that the Sailors have embraced all year long has led them to Newport Harbor's first CIF final appearance since 2001 and their sixth overall. Newport has never won a CIF team title in girls' tennis.

"With this group, every single day in practice, everyone's focusing on what we can do for each other," senior captain Lauren Conway said. "Practicing over the summer and through the season, we've all learned to trust each other. In tennis we're all on different courts. I'm over there, but I trust that on the first court, Ricki [Archie] and Christina [Young] are putting in everything they can. We've built that trust and we're all so close. We just believe in each other."

Newport Harbor (21-2), which has won 14 straight matches, started strong against visiting Arcadia. The Tars wanted to avenge a second-round loss at Arcadia last year.

The doubles teams of Archie and Young, Mindy Wheeler and Megan Bathen, as well as seniors Alex Aiello and Riley Mathies, swept their nine sets. It was their second sweep in the last three playoff matches.

Newport Harbor was on its way after the first round, which ended with the hosts up, 5-1. Not only did they win all three doubles sets, but they also won two of three singles sets. Conway came back from a deficit to outlast Arcadia's Hazel Limfat, 6-4, at No. 3 singles. And, in the last set completed in that first round, freshman Natalie Cernius beat Arcadia's Nadia Pacheco, also 6-4, at No. 2 singles.

"The first set on every single court, you could just feel the intensity and how pumped up everyone was," Conway said. "Coming off the court, I felt like we had so much momentum heading into the second round."

Cernius and Pacheco played some points that seemed to go on forever, both players hitting looping, "moonball" shots at times and not wanting to make a mistake. In the end, however, Cernius prevailed, which surprised no one.

"Every girl on this team has a word that I give them, and her word is 'determination,' " said Case of Cernius, who won two of three singles sets. "She embodies determination. That girl is so determined, and she will leave every ounce of energy and heart she has on that court. She's one of the most determined players I've ever coached. Today doubles showed up and played lights-out tennis, but it's always a team effort. Singles hung in there so strong today, and I'm so proud of how well they played."

Arcadia No. 1 singles player Francis Dean, a sophomore and the two-time Pacific League singles champion, easily swept her three sets. But Sailors No. 1 singles player Blake Bakkila, Cernius and Conway swept Limfat, Arcadia's No. 3 player.

"We kind of background-checked them, so we knew their No. 1 and 2 [singles players] would be good," Conway said. "As a singles team — me, Blake and Nat — we decided we were going to go out and get that No. 3 girl. After I got her, I was super-pumped. We really feed off each other."

This is true among all players on the team. Bakkila, better known on the team as "Blakers," is one of the most vocal.

"When I hear 'Blakers' say, 'Come on!,' you can hear it on all the courts," Wheeler said. "It really fires us all up."

Arcadia (21-1) was unseeded. Coach Jerry Dohling saw his team fall behind early after Newport Harbor's two close singles wins in the first round, plus Young and Archie battled back from a break down to win, 7-5, over Arcadia's Elizabeth Lieu and Michelle Zhu.

Bakkila lost to Dean, 6-1, but stayed out on the singles courts to root for her teammates.

"I don't think any of us are looking for their own personal record," Bakkila said. "I want to win because I knew we can get one step closer to the next round. One person doesn't do anything. You can have a good No. 1, but you have to have a good team. Our depth got us through this match. They had one good singles player, and we pushed through her."

The Sailors don't know much about San Marino other than it has two very strong singles players. But Case said her team just will be "playing the ball" most of all on Monday.

"It's been such an incredible process watching these girls grow and develop, and see what they're capable of," she said. "That means more to me than any title we can get. The title would be a bonus, but I can't even put into words how proud I am of how far these girls have come. They're a very inspirational group. Watching their progress, I'll never forget it. It's been great.

"They're just a living example that when you get a group of girls together that truly believe in one another and support one another, anything is possible. I have no doubt that they're going to show up Monday and finish this thing off the right way."

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