Sage edged by Tartans

NEWPORT BEACH — The Sage Hill School girls' tennis team expected St. Margaret's standout Zoe Oedekerk to play in Tuesday's Academy League opener, but the junior has been battling a back injury.

Would Oedekerk play singles or doubles? Lightning Coach A.G. Longoria engineered a sly way to find out.

During the player introductions he started at the No. 3 players and worked up to No. 1. Longoria had two lineups prepared, one for if Oedekerk played singles and one for if she played doubles. When St. Margaret's announced Oedekerk at No. 3 doubles, on the fly Longoria went with his stronger singles lineup, announcing Kimberly Brown at No. 1 singles instead of in doubles.

"I was waiting for them to commit," said Longoria, a two-time California High School Tennis Coach of the Year. "As a young college Division I coach, I learned a lot of tricks."

The plan was solid, but Sage Hill still had to win the match. The Lightning couldn't do it, falling, 10-8, at The Tennis Club Newport Beach.

"We had the lineup the way we wanted it," Longoria said. "[The doubles teams] were to win three, two and one [sets], then get four in the singles."

The match was expected to be close, with St. Margaret's at No. 2 in the CIF Southern Section Division III coaches' poll and Sage at No. 3. It was a rematch of last year's Division III final, which St. Margaret's won on games to claim its third straight CIF title.

Things did not go as Sage Hill (4-3) expected. The Lightning fell behind after the opening round, 4-2. The key set was the last one to finish, when St. Margaret's senior Maddy Gottlieb and sophomore Tessa Hurr came from behind to outlast Sage Hill seniors Katie Bick and Rian Billingsley, 7-5.

To St. Margaret's Coach Rick Trager, it was the most important set as the Tartans (7-0) continued their winning streak. St. Margaret's now has won 79 straight matches over the last three-plus years; its last loss was in the 2007 CIF semifinals.

"If you had to pick one set that really changed the whole match, it was that one there," Trager said. "Having Maddy and Tessa win that set was really a biggie, because that just gave us so much confidence. That Sage doubles team is one of the premiere teams, I would say, around Orange County."

Sage Hill got its four sets in singles, two each from Brown and Liana Korber. In her last set of the day, Brown won the last five games to beat St. Margaret's freshman Deena Fatehi, 7-5. The quickly improving Korber won both her sets by 6-0 scores.

But Bick and Billingsley, the Lightning's top doubles team, won just one of three sets. So did senior Ava Soleimany and junior Molly Wang.

The No. 3 doubles team of senior Casey Astorino and junior Lauren Hsu did win twice. The first win, 6-4 over Gottlieb and Hurr in the second round, kept the Lightning within 7-5 on sets. But they couldn't draw closer.

St. Margaret's senior Tiffany Cheng swept at No. 1 singles, 6-1, 6-2, 6-0. Oedekerk and her partner, Katie Fragapane, also easily swept.

"Having [Oedekerk] play, even though she only played doubles, it just gives our whole team a morale [boost]," Trager said. "She played great doubles … Without her here, I think it would have been a different story."

The Lightning hope the next league meeting against St. Margaret's on Oct. 14 is a different story. Last year, they got closer every time playing the Tartans, from losing 11-7 in the first league meeting to 10-8 in the second meeting to 9-9 in the CIF final.

A similar improvement, and the St. Margaret's winning streak could be threatened.

"I just try not to pay attention to that [winning streak]," Brown said. "It was very disappointing losing in the finals last year, but you can't dwell on that."

The Lightning plan to bounce back. There's still the question of when Longoria will play which cards.

"We still can improve," Longoria said. "We've got two or three weeks [until we play them again]. The other strategy involved is do you go for winning the league, or do you save the best strategy for winning CIF?"

It's something else for the veteran coach to ponder. Trager expects no less.

"Who knows what A.G. is going to do?" Trager said. "He's always changing different things trying to find a way of winning, which is why he's such a good coach … He's by far the best coach that I've ever faced in my 25 years of coaching. You never know what he's going to do."

Even up until the last player introduction is made.

Twitter: @mjszabo

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