High Schools: Case provides positive vibe

Kristen Case is quite possibly the most positive person one would ever meet.

The proverbial glass is always half full for the Newport Harbor High boys' and girls' tennis coach.

She wouldn't have it any other way. Neither would the Sailors.

Perhaps more than any other team I've ever covered, this year's Sailors girls' tennis team had so much positive energy behind it. More than that, I saw in the half-dozen or so matches I covered this season how much the team members cared for each other.

A loss in the CIF Southern Section Division II championship match Monday afternoon did nothing to diminish that.

Case was proud of her "beasts," as she calls the players, part of the way she gives them more self-confidence. They were able to smile through the tears, even after losing to San Marino.

"Mama beast," in her fourth year as varsity coach, never growls.

"In all four years being here, I've probably never heard one negative comment coming out of her mouth," senior team captain Lauren Conway said. "I feel like she wants it just as bad as every girl on the team, and she puts a ton of her time into everything she does. Some of these teams just have a bunch of individual tennis players, who aren't really used to the team. She's really put a lot of focus into the team … and I feel like that's why we won a lot of our matches."

This year's Sailors were a team with no tennis prodigies, no players guaranteed a sweep every time they walked on the court. That's true even though the top two doubles teams of Ricki Archie and Christina Young, as well as Mindy Wheeler and Megan Bathen, never lost a set in the Sunset League. They were the underdogs even as the top-seeded team in Division II, if that was possible.

Case, 28, was in the middle of it all. The walk-on coach was quite a successful doubles player herself at Newport Harbor before graduating in 2000 and playing at Cal. She went on to help out at Corona del Mar, but a varsity position opened up at her alma mater. Fletcher Olson, the long-time coach, is still considered the head coach for the program. Case has been focusing on the varsity and Olson coached the junior varsity.

Olson knew the varsity squad was in good hands.

"She inspires the girls," Olson said of Case, who played under her during her time at Harbor. "She has determination, heart and spirit. She's brought all that to the program. I think the girls see her as a role model and mentor, in a very positive way. Her heart and soul is in the program here at Newport Harbor."

Case said some people may have doubted the Sailors at the start of the year, as the top two singles players decided not to return. Nobody could say the same by November, as they were breezing through the Sunset League and making their first CIF team final since 2001.

She pushed the girls hard in those summer months. It's nothing that Case herself wouldn't do. She said she grew up playing all sports when she was young, deciding to stick to tennis at the relatively late age of 11. She was coached by her father, Ross, who still teaches at Big Canyon Country Club. He wasn't a bad coach to have; Ross Case was a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion in the 1970s.

"He's very laid-back, and I have a high-energy and intensity side," Kristen Case said. "He's always good at balancing that out for me, although at times I didn't want to listen because he was my dad."

Ross had the nickname "The Snake." Kristen never slithered away from her responsibilities.

She explained how her sister Jordan, 26, had a bad reaction to a shot when she was very young. Now she lives at home and is mentally and physically disabled. Being the older sister had a different meaning for Kristen.

"I think it helped me develop a strong sense of compassion," Kristen Case said. "I really try to guard against whining and complaining. At the end of the day, we don't have it that bad."

It's just one more thing to admire for Poita Cernius, who has had three of her children play for Case in the Sailors' tennis program. Ariana graduated in 2009, Jason is a senior this year for the boys and Natalie, a freshman, played No. 2 singles all year long for Newport.

Poita Cernius knows about dealing with disabilities. Her other son, Andrew, is autistic.

"It's so easy to get discouraged when things go badly, but Kristen doesn't," Poita Cernius said. "I've seen her with her sister and I'd say she treats the team a lot of the same way. She believes in them, sometimes more than they believe in themselves. But when you're around somebody who gives 200% all the time, you can't give less."

Case is never still for long during a match, constantly moving from court to court to offer encouragement. At the end of Monday's match, when the outcome was pretty much already decided, the Newport Harbor players were still yelling plenty of encouragement to Wheeler and Bathen as they finished their final set.

The team was losing, but Wheeler and Bathen were winning, so the other members shook off any disappointment they might have been feeling to offer some love to their teammates and friends.

When all is said and done, isn't that what high school sports should be about? It's not about taking the credit, and Case doesn't do that either.

"I try to, in my own way, instill toughness in them," Case said. "They make me look good. They're a good group of girls. I credit them for all their time and dedication."

But to anyone familiar with the Sailors and their accomplishments this year, "Mama Beast" deserves a lot of the credit.

"She always has our best interests [in mind]," Ricki Archie said. "She always tells me if I have issues outside of tennis, I can go to her and talk to her. She definitely still has the persona of a coach, she has the authority on the court. But off the court, she's very approachable and easy to talk to. She's really just a great coach."

Case, who teaches private lessons as well, said that she'd like to become a teacher.

That's just in a formal sense. Clearly, there are 13 players on this year's Newport Harbor varsity girls' tennis team who have already learned so much.

About themselves, about life, and oh yeah, about hitting a small green ball over a three-foot high net.

"They've known me for a while," Case said. "They know that even at times when they want to get negative, I'm not going to let them.

"You can choose to go two directions. You can go negative or go positive, and you're only going to get better when you go positive."

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