Journey takes detour

CLAREMONT — Coach Kristen Case said this special season for the Newport Harbor High girls' tennis team has been more about the journey than the destination.

Monday's match at the final destination, The Claremont Club, didn't go the way the top-seeded Sailors wanted. They fell to unseeded San Marino, 11-7, in the CIF Southern Section Division II championship match.

The tears in the eyes of the players at the end were strictly because that journey was over.

"I feel like we've all grown such strong bonds," said senior Lauren Conway, one of three senior starters along with the doubles team of Riley Mathies and Alex Aiello. "Riley and Alex, I've been on the team with them since I was a freshman. We've all been through a lot. I feel like I'm more upset that I'm leaving all these girls than [upset] that we lost, to be honest with you. I'm upset because we won't be coming to practice everyday and seeing each other. We wanted to end it on a high note, but I feel like getting to the finals is a pretty big accomplishment. I feel like we represented our school well, so I'm happy."

Newport Harbor (21-3), which had a 14-match winning streak snapped, became the latest of six Sailors girls' tennis teams to lose a section final. The Sailors, who were making their first final appearance since 2001, have never won a CIF team title.

The Sailors went into the match strong in doubles, sweeping in two of their last three playoff matches. San Marino (17-1) was strong in singles, as sophomore Dorothy Tang and junior Sarah Gealer are each ranked in Southern California. Tang is ranked No. 18 in the girls' 18s, and Gealer is No. 20 in the 16s.

But the Titans flipped the script in the first round, winning a pair of doubles matches.

They had a 3-1 lead with two doubles matches still on. After the San Marino sister combo of senior Tammy and freshman Vivian Le topped Newport Harbor's Ricki Archie and Christina Young, 6-4, eyes turned to the final doubles court at the far west end.

Aiello and Mathies had stormed back from a 5-1 deficit to force a tiebreaker against San Marino's other sister doubles combo, junior Michelle and sophomore Monique Gandawidjaja.

But the Gandawidjaja sisters won the first three points of the tiebreaker and went on to take it, 7-2, leaving San Marino with a surprising 5-1 sets lead after the first go-round. It was the first time all year Newport Harbor had faced such a big deficit after the opening round.

"We didn't want to start off our last match with such a big loss," Aiello said. "We knew that we could do it. I was kind of nervous, but we pulled it together. It just didn't come out our way."

The collective slow start hurt the three-time defending Sunset League champion Tars. With Tang and Gealer big favorites to win their final two sets each, that would give the Titans nine sets. San Marino could realistically already start thinking about winning the match.

"You definitely can come back, but you dig yourself a hole and make it more difficult on yourself," Case said. "We definitely had a slower start than usual today, [but] I loved the way the girls came back tough in each round. I think they put their head down and kept digging, but we had to kind of dig from a little bit too far behind today."

Junior Mindy Wheeler and sophomore Megan Bathen continued their red-hot play for the Sailors at No. 2 doubles, as they swept. They went undefeated in the team's five playoff matches.

Archie and Young, the Sunset League doubles champions, also took two of three sets, and singles players Blake Bakkila and Natalie Cernius each won against San Marino No. 3 Larissa Phillips.

But San Marino, empowered after its fast start, simply split the final two rounds to take home the championship plaque. The Titans took an 8-4 lead after two rounds and clinched the match after Tang and Gealer each won their third set of the day by 6-0 scores.

Tang earned the triple-bagel with three 6-0 wins, while Gealer won her sets by scores ranging from 6-0 to 6-2. San Marino's Larissa Phillips added a singles win, but San Marino's four doubles wins were the real story to Coach Ron Machuca.

He said he was surprised after watching San Marino win its second straight CIF title — last year's coming in Division III — and ninth overall. Machuca said he figured Monday's match might come down to games, like his team's second-round win over Crescenta Valley and semifinal upset of No. 2-seeded Santa Barbara.

"Newport Harbor is very, very tough in doubles," Machuca said. "I knew we could win seven singles [sets], but to win four in doubles against them? It's surreal. Pinch me and I still won't believe it.

"My kids came to play today, they came prepared. I'm not saying Newport Harbor didn't, but today we played a little bit better."

As the match drew to a close, Wheeler and Bathen were the last ones playing. Their teammates cheered as they topped the Le sisters, 7-6 (7-4), then the Sailors stood in a circle to talk about their remarkable season. They stood there long enough that someone from CIF had to come over, telling them the awards ceremony was about to start.

Soon, those tears started flowing.

"It's not tears because we lost the title," Case said. "It's tears because the seniors meant a lot to this team, and they know they're not going to get their seniors back. That gets a little emotional, because these girls care about each other a lot. The girls are proud of each other. They know that they gave their best effort."

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