CLAREMONT — The Newport Harbor High girls' tennis team huddled for one last time Monday afternoon, on a tennis court in the far corner at The Claremont Club.
The Sailors had just lost in the CIF Southern Section Division II championship match, 16-2, to Santa Barbara. It was the furthest thing from Coach Kristen Case's mind.
She asked the players, assembled in a circle, to raise their hands if they had given 100% in the match. All 12 Sailors raised their hands.
"That's all you can do," Case told her team.
It just wasn't enough to win the title, as the Sailors were denied in the final for the second straight year. Last year, it was San Marino that topped Newport Harbor, 11-7.
Newport Harbor has never won a CIF team title in girls' tennis, falling to 0-7 all-time in the finals. A better record that Case could focus on was 41-5, the Sailors' overall mark the past two years, spearheaded by a strong senior class of Blake Bakkila, Christina and Robin Young, Mindy Wheeler, Holly Hovnanian and Cece Beck.
"The team is greatly going to miss them," Case said. "Their leadership is top-notch. They're so committed to their team and their teammates, and I think, above all, they're great role models. If I had kids in high school and I knew that my son or daughter was being led by a group like that, I'd be so happy and feel so fortunate."
Bakkila, a four-year varsity player who played for two years at No. 1 singles, missed the whole playoffs with a sprained ankle. Yet, the team captain always stayed positive. She still was constantly on the move from court to court Monday, trying to rally her teammates, but top-seeded Santa Barbara (18-2) won the first four completed sets.
Newport Harbor sophomore Natalie Cernius then won her first singles set over Santa Barbara's Mattea Kilstofe, 6-3. But in the last match on court in the first round, Santa Barbara sophomores Lisa Santry and Karina Thornton outlasted Wheeler and Megan Bathen, 7-6 (7-4), at No. 2 doubles.
The No. 3-seeded Sailors (20-2) were down, 5-1, after the first round, just like last year against San Marino. It did not get easier against the Dons. Their doubles teams of Megan Grant and Madison Hale, Santry and Thornton, as well as Marianna Alevra and Taryn Mjelde, all swept.
"I heard from a lot of people how dominant Newport Harbor's doubles teams are," said Mjelde, one of just two senior starters for Santa Barbara. "They definitely are all good teams. I think we just came out and wanted to win. We stuck to our game plan … We wanted to just stay consistent and not get rattled by them, and we poached. Our coaches always want us to not be invisible at net, and always move our feet."
Santa Barbara stayed red-hot, sweeping in the second round. Freshman Summer Garrison rallied from a 4-1 deficit to top Cernius, 6-4, winning the 10th set and clinching the Dons' first CIF title since 2003. Moments later, Grant and Hale also won the last five games to defeat Wheeler and Bathen, 6-4.
Wheeler and Bathen were the only Newport doubles team to come close. Santa Barbara won six of the nine doubles sets by scores of 6-1.
"They just forced us to make errors," Christina Young said of the Dons' doubles prowess. "It was like we had to make very specific and disciplined shots. They're just a really strong team … we couldn't get away with anything."
Newport Harbor freshman Annie Radeva also won a singles set, in the third round. But Summer Garrison, as well as her older sister Aurora, swept in singles for the Dons.
"They're extremely deep," Case said. "They do not have a weak link."
All year long, the Sailors won as a team. They also suffered defeat as a team, as they gathered to root on Cernius in the last set on-court.
"I feel like this seriously has been the best year of tennis we've had in so long," Hovnanian said. "Throughout, we were so strong. I've never felt so close and bonded to a group of girls like this before. This team, I feel like we're the closest and we did incredible. We can't look at [the season] as a bad thing. When we look back at all of the things we've done, it's pretty crazy."
They accomplished their first two season goals: a Battle of the Bay win over Corona del Mar and going undefeated in the Sunset League for their fourth straight league title. The third and final goal was a CIF title.
But the Tars also avenged last year's final loss to San Marino by beating the Titans on the road Thursday in a marathon semifinal, a match the Newport seniors on Monday agreed was their best of the season.
"They've been a part of something that I think is very special," Case said. "They've stuck together the whole way. They've battled together and they've supported each other, and the same today. I told them I couldn't be more proud of them. I couldn't be more proud of what they represent. They always give 100% effort, they never quit, and they're always there to support and encourage their teammates. Unfortunately, Santa Barbara played better today. We gave it our best, and they came up with a win."