Sailors lose grasp on first place

LONG BEACH — Los Alamitos High girls' tennis coach Kevin Garrett talked about wanting his team to play the best teams Southern California has to offer.

He said the Griffins have already played matches against Dana Hills and University, and have Peninsula coming up. Those are three of the top four teams in CIF Southern Section Division 1.

In the Sunset League, Los Alamitos might not be tested like in those matches. It sure looked that way Thursday.

The Griffins blitzed Newport Harbor, 15-3, at El Dorado Tennis Center, handing the Sailors their first league loss since 2009. Newport Harbor has won four straight Sunset League titles but that streak appears to be in jeopardy now, as Los Al is alone in first after the first round of league play.

The reason for the turnaround was simple enough to Garrett, whose team lost to Newport, 17-1 and 15-3, in two league meetings last year.

"I mean, they got a lot weaker and we got a lot stronger," Garrett said. "It was on both teams."

Garrett, who coached the Los Al boys to a CIF title in 2001, is in his second year back at Los Al as varsity girls coach. He said he lost just two senior starters from last year's team and added two newcomers, freshman Hope Hairrell and sophomore Jennifer Lu.

The additions were significant for Los Alamitos (5-3, 5-0 in league). Hairrell, Lu and sophomore Aliya Alenikov won eight of nine singles sets Thursday against the Sailors (9-4, 4-1). Only Newport Harbor junior Kate Knight was able to win a singles set, as she defeated Hairrell, 6-3, in her first set of the afternoon.

"We're still so young this year," said Garrett, who has just three senior starters and one junior. "I feel like sometimes we're a middle school team, with our ages. Our freshmen are 13-year-olds, and our sophomores are 14. It's nice, because it means we're going to be good for a long time, but I feel like when we go up against 17-year-olds we're at a distinct disadvantage. It works both ways."

But Los Alamitos was similarly dominant in doubles. The Griffins won seven of nine sets, the two losses being to Newport Harbor's No. 1 team of seniors Megan Bathen and Kaitlyn Cosenza.

Los Al's No. 1 team of Sarah Edwards and Sydney Bott, which swept, defeated Bathen and Cosenza, 6-3, in the first round, handing the Sailors seniors just their second league loss of the season. Edwards and Bott were Sunset League doubles finalists a year ago, falling in the championship match to Bathen and Mindy Wheeler.

The Sailors did not give up at any point, but they were just overmatched. Los Al took a 10-2 lead after two rounds, clinching the match. The doubles teams of Melissa Gahungu and Caroleen Fararji, as well as Andrea Miloslavic and Mary Bunting, each won twice for the Griffins.

"Everyone was still constantly cheering in the third round," Cosenza said. "I think we'll take it as a learning experience. I think it's just going to fire us up even more. I mean, yeah, we're going to see them again, so we should just go out there and practice hard and have them in the front of our minds."

Garrett said he was actually hoping for a closer match. He said he was disappointed when he found out sophomore Annie Radeva and junior Natalie Cernius would not be returning this year for the Sailors.

"We were actually really disappointed when we saw they weren't playing," Garrett said. "I mean, I'm driving my kids all over Southern California to play top programs. We're happy just to find good competition. We would have liked to have played them, but we understand people have other commitments."

Of course, Los Al hasn't stolen the league crown yet. The teams play again in the last league match of the season, Oct. 15 at Newport Harbor. Sailors Coach Kristen Case believes her team will be ready for that match.

Another important match comes Tuesday, when the Sailors play host to Edison. They edged the Chargers, 10-8, on the road in the league opener.

"I'm really proud of the way in which my girls competed," Case said. "They never gave up, they never let their heads hang and they kept battling. That means more to me than the final result. The most important thing now is how we use this match. We can use it to our advantage, we can use it to learn some really good lessons and really highlight a couple of extra areas we need to work on. That's exactly what we're going to do. We'll see them in about three weeks and hopefully flip this score around.

"[The girls] are great, they're ready. They understand the process. If they can take this match as a really good learning experience, they're going to grow as players. They stuck together the entire match. They're extremely unified and they have so much spirit, and that's one thing that makes this team so great. I still believe in our ability to come out and take care of these teams in the second round of league."

matthew.szabo@latimes.com

Twitter: @mjszabo

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