Sailors start strong

NEWPORT BEACH — Good programs don't rebuild, they reload.

"Rebuild" certainly has not been a word that Coach Kristen Case has had to use in her first five years coaching at her alma mater. The Newport Harbor High girls' tennis team has won the last four Sunset League titles. The Sailors have made CIF Southern Section Division 2 finals appearances each of the last two years.

And, though the Sailors did lose plenty of players from last year, they showed Tuesday afternoon that they still have plenty of talent in place.

Newport Harbor overwhelmed a short-handed Sage Hill squad, 16-2, at home in the first dual match of the season for both schools.

The Sailors' five seniors were perfect. Senior McKenna Johnson swept at No. 2 singles in her first varsity match, including an impressive 6-4 victory over Lightning No. 1 Liana Korber.

The doubles teams of seniors Megan Bathen and Kaitlyn Cosenza, as well as Kelsey Christiansen and Lexi DeSantis, also won five sets for Newport Harbor.

"It's looking good so far," Case said. "It's come together great. I have a really good core group of seniors, and all of them demonstrate great leadership, which is really crucial to our success. There's also a lot of young girls. With their enthusiasm and dedication, they've jumped right in and jumped on-board and really become a solid unit really quick. This is the first year it's probably been such a new team, and for them to be this unified this quick is an amazing thing to watch. We're definitely focused on match-by-match. It's more so for us about the journey, and not the end result."

Some of that youth also shined. Freshman Baylee Bakkila won twice before she was subbed out, and the freshman doubles team of Kendall Cosenza and Peyton Espley-Jones were subbed in to win a tiebreaker set in the final round.

Kaitlyn Cosenza, one of just three returning starters, said the team has meshed well.

"It's good this year just to see a bunch of faces on the team," Kaitlyn Cosenza said. "It's refreshing, just to be able to work with a new group of girls and start over, I guess. We've been working really hard this summer, so everything is the same in that aspect. There's just some new faces on the court, which is really nice."

Kate Knight won two of three sets for the Sailors, and the doubles team of juniors Carly Searcy and Reagan Rutter also won their lone set. It was a good team victory for Newport Harbor, which lost senior starters like No. 1 singles player Blake Bakkila, Christina and Robin Young, Mindy Wheeler and Holly Hovnanian from a year ago. The Sailors' other two singles starters from a year ago, incoming sophomore Annie Radeva and junior Natalie Cernius, also did not return to the team.

Christina Young and Wheeler were on hand Tuesday to support their former teammates. Class isn't in session yet at their new schools, UC Santa Barbara and UCLA, respectively.

The class of 2012 saw some big set wins by the class of 2013. DeSantis, a first-year varsity player, said it's been an easy transition.

"I didn't really know what to expect coming in, but it's been super-fun," DeSantis said. "We're all totally focused all the time. We have a totally new dynamic than my team last year. You know when to have fun with it, and when to be serious. We go into match mode, we're in match mode. We go into practice mode, we're in practice mode. And when we're with each other, it's friends mode. Everyone wants to be around each other, not just on the court but off the court too, so it's been super-fun."

Sage Hill was not at full strength. The Lightning, who themselves have been Division 4 finalists the last two years, did not even bring a No. 3 doubles team to the match.

Coach A.G. Longoria said it was combination of factors. Some of Sage's top players, like Kimberly Brown and Lauren Hsu, were at CdM for a doubles tournament. Longoria did not have his freshman players either, because Tuesday was also Sage Hill's freshman orientation day.

"I have some pretty good freshmen I'd like to see," said Longoria, who had Korber account for his team's two set wins. "But, of all days, I can't get them out."

Wednesday is another big day for Newport Harbor. The Sailors play at Corona del Mar at 3 p.m. in the annual Battle of the Bay.

Last year Newport Harbor easily beat CdM, 15-3, to win the rivalry match for the first time since Case played in 1999.

"I feel like as seniors, it's our last chance to really bring it home to CdM," Kaitlyn Cosenza said. "Last year was amazing, and I hope we can do it again. I feel like we're all really ready for the match tomorrow, mentally prepared and ready on the tennis court too."

matthew.szabo@latimes.com

Twitter: @mjszabo

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