Sailors reach final

SAN MARINO — A team is more than just a collection of individuals.

The Newport Harbor High girls' tennis team has spent the whole season proving it.

On this team, senior captain Blake Bakkila picked up the team's other singles players on Halloween night and took them to dinner and a movie for a "singles night out."

On this team, one of those other two singles players, sophomore Natalie Cernius, gave up her spot in the CIF Individuals tournament to the other, freshman Annie Radeva, because she knows Radeva wants to play in college like her older sister Nelly.

On this team, senior Cece Beck and junior Kelsey Christiansen cheer their hearts out for their teammates no matter what. Christiansen had another responsibility Thursday, bringing three large bags of "pretzel M&Ms" for good luck.

The Sailors have eaten them in their last three CIF matches. Even sweeter was the team's 11-7 victory at San Marino on Thursday in a CIF Southern Section Division II semifinal match, getting revenge for last year.

Now this team is a win away from capturing the first CIF title in program history.

No. 3-seeded Newport Harbor (20-1) advanced to the title match for the second straight year, and seventh overall. The Sailors will play top-seeded Santa Barbara at 10:30 a.m. Monday at The Claremont Club.

Santa Barbara beat El Dorado, 15-3, on Thursday in another semifinal match.

"Every member of this team has embraced their role incredibly," Sailors Coach Kristen Case said. "Everybody has made a heroic effort in this run in the playoffs, in their own way. It just makes me feel like the luckiest coach. They all individually are incredible, and when you bring that together, it just makes for one of the most special and powerful teams I've ever coached."

The Sailors needed a special effort against San Marino (18-2). The Titans defeated the Sailors by the same score 11-7, in last year's final. The year before that, San Marino won CIF in Division III.

Thursday's match lasted four-and-a-half hours, partially because San Marino has just five courts. Darkness had set in by the time the Sailors clinched it with two doubles sets still on-court, garnering enough games to advance. But they also finished strong, as senior twins Christina and Robin Young, as well as the team of senior Holly Hovnanian and junior Kaitlyn Cosenza, each won those last sets by 6-3 and 7-5 scores.

Newport Harbor won eight of nine doubles sets, but few were easy. The Young sisters swept, 7-6, 6-4, 6-3. The No. 2 team of senior Mindy Wheeler and junior Megan Bathen also swept, 6-3, 6-0, 6-1, while Hovnanian and Cosenza took a pair of 7-5 sets.

Christina and Robin Young nearly lost a lead in the first round against San Marino's top pairing of Larissa Phillips and Vivian Le. The San Marino duo rallied from 5-2 down to force a tiebreaker, then rallied in the 'breaker from 4-1 down for a set point at 7-6. But the Young sisters stormed back to take it, 10-8, helping Newport Harbor take a 4-2 sets lead after the first round.

"What we kept telling each other was to do it for the team," Robin Young said. "I think that's what pulled us through that match, especially since we were up by so much. We had to let our egos get out of the way. Instead of saying, 'We were up 5-2, why didn't we finish it off,' we just kept saying, 'We need the win for the team.'"

There were also good signs in singles, though Bakkila missed another playoff match due to her sprained ankle. Radeva, Cernius and Kate Knight each beat San Marino's No. 3 player by 6-0 or 6-1 scores.

Maryland-bound senior Sarah Gealer and junior Dorothy Tang did both sweep for the Titans (18-2), like they did in last year's CIF final. Tang is ranked No. 14 in Southern California in girls' 18s by the United States Tennis Assn., and Gealer is No. 25.

But the Sailors' Radeva, at No. 1 singles, battled hard. She stormed to a 3-0 lead against Gealer before falling, 6-3. Against Tang, she battled from a 4-1 deficit before losing, 6-4.

The seven games Radeva earned helped the Sailors at the end. After Wheeler and Bathen defeated Phillips and Le, 6-3, in a tension-filled final set, Newport Harbor had a 9-7 sets lead and a 68-62 games advantage.

There was controversy on set point. Wheeler's serve was called out by San Marino. Bakkila, already serving as a line judge, said the shot was in. The San Marino line judge didn't see where the serve landed.

The Sailors thought the point — and set — should have been theirs, and Case argued vehemently for her team. After much commotion, the point was replayed, but the Sailors were not rattled. Wheeler and Bathen won the set anyway on the next point.

"One of our big team mottos is that we love the battle," Case said. "That's what we've embraced from our training until summer until now — love the battle. I think some girls, when the going gets tough they get going, and this group does the total opposite. When it gets tougher, they step it up more. They're absolutely incredible young women."

They are also road warriors, after four trips to Los Angeles County for CIF matches in six days. That included a trip for a second-round match last Saturday that was eventually postponed due to rain.

Bakkila said the Sailors have adopted the motto of Fresno State football – they'll play "anyone, anytime, anywhere."

"No matter what the circumstances, no matter where we're going, we know how to get the job done," she said.

She continues to do so for the Sailors as well, in her coaching and encouraging role.

"I feel like no matter what the situation is, you always have your mission," Bakkila said. "Obviously, something was meant to be where I was supposed to be on the sidelines, cheering my butt off for my best friends. Wherever you are, on or off the court, you play such a huge role for this team."

The fifth trip to Los Angeles County is Monday in Claremont. The Sailors expect to be ready.

"I think we're as confident as we'll ever be," Hovnanian said. "We don't have any fear, any hesitation. I feel like we're just going to go in and put it all out there."

Twitter: @mjszabo

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