NEWPORT BEACH — The Newport Harbor High girls' tennis team did not leave the courts Monday afternoon with its fifth straight Sunset League title.
After pushing Los Alamitos to the brink in the league finale, the Sailors walked off with something they saw as more valuable — perspective.
The Griffins took the league crown after outlasting the Sailors 82-72 on games, after the two teams each won nine sets at Newport Harbor High. But, considering Los Al defeated Newport Harbor 15-3 in the teams' first league meeting Sept. 27 at El Dorado Tennis Center, the second-place Sailors' improvement was impressive.
The Newport Harbor players were not downtrodden after nearly toppling the No. 9-ranked team in CIF Southern Section Division 1. They were upbeat, excited even.
"I think it just shows how much our team wanted it, and how much time and effort and practice we put into everything," Newport Harbor senior Kaitlyn Cosenza said. "I mean, second is great. I feel like the outcome doesn't matter to us. The journey is more important to us."
The match was tied, 8-8, with two doubles sets still on court. But Los Alamitos' Melissa Gahungu and Megan Coats outlasted Sailors freshmen Kendall Cosenza and Anna Burke, 7-6 (7-5), essentially clinching the match with the Griffins up on games.
In the last set to finish, Kaitlyn Cosenza and partner Megan Bathen rallied from a 4-0 deficit and saved four set points in a tiebreaker to top Sarah Edwards and Sydney Bott, 7-6 (10-8).
"It shows our improvement, especially in the score," Bathen said. "We felt like we had nothing to lose. We just came out here and left everything on the court ... We didn't quite know what our team was capable of, and today was definitely a turning point of seeing that trust and our teamwork come together. That just gives us so much momentum. It builds our reputation and builds our threat factor, to other teams."
Newport Harbor (14-5, 8-2 in league) continually showed the tenacity that has become a trademark of Coach Kristen Case's squads. The Sailors were down, 4-2, to Los Alamitos after the first round before catching a bit of a break. The Griffins' No. 2 singles player, Aliya Alenikov, had to leave the match with an elbow injury.
Los Alamitos still led the match, 7-5, after two rounds. But Case saw the fight in her team, which has just two returning starters from last year. Los Alamitos (11-3, 10-0) has seven returning starters.
"We all knew we could win this match, and we were right there," Case said. "I'm impressed, but not surprised. I think it's key the way in which this team bonds together. In a big moment like today, we saw their team fall apart. Alenikov, after she [got hurt], she left. She didn't even stay. With us, in moments like this, we just kind of bond tighter together and step up. I'm just really proud of everything that they stand for."
Every single player stepped up in the last round. Junior Kate Knight defeated Los Al substitute Alaina Liu, 6-0. No. 2 singles player McKenna Johnson, a senior, rallied from a 4-1 deficit to top Caroleen Fararji, 6-4.
Even the losses were impressive. Newport Harbor freshman Baylee Bakkila charged to a 4-1 lead over the Griffins' top player, sophomore Jennifer Lu, before Lu won five straight games for the victory. Lu is ranked No. 33 in Southern California girls' 16s by the United States Tennis Assn.
Seniors Kelsey Christensen and Lexi DeSantis also won in doubles in the final round, before the match came down to the two tiebreakers. Los Al Coach Kevin Garrett, who rested one of his top singles players, freshman Hope Hairrell (shoulder), was not necessarily surprised by the close result.
"I definitely didn't want it to be that close," Garrett said. "[The Sailors] definitely played better. They always play better here."
Newport Harbor, which won just once in singles in the teams' first meeting, won five singles sets on Monday. Knight and Bakkila each won twice.
Kaitlyn Cosenza and Bathen had an impressive doubles sweep as well. They had lost to Edwards and Bott, 6-3, in the teams' first meeting.
"I completely believe in my team," Case said. "I know what they're capable of. I've watched them both on and off the court. Their tennis talent, combined with their incredible character, I just feel like they can accomplish anything they set their minds to. We decided after the last time that we played them to turn that setback into a comeback, and that's exactly what they did. They were relentless about their determination to improve."
The Sailors still have plenty of time to improve before the Division 1 playoffs start Oct. 31. The Sunset League individual tournament begins Wednesday at El Dorado.
"It's only been 18 days since we played [Los Alamitos] last time," Christensen said. "To see how much we've improved in those two-and-a-half weeks, It motivates us to work that hard, to improve in these next two-and-half weeks and be able to bring it in playoffs."