COSTA MESA — The suspense has not been there this year in the Battle for the Bell boys' tennis matches.
The Estancia High program is up, while Costa Mesa is down.
But, for the Eagles, Thursday's 17-1 Orange Coast League victory at Costa Mesa High provided good practice for a big match down the road.
Estancia (12-4, 4-1 in league) plays at first-place Laguna Beach on April 9. The Breakers, who have won the last five league titles, won the teams' first meeting, 11-7. Estancia Coach Carlos Beltran said Laguna's top player, senior Teague Hamilton, missed that match with a wrist injury.
The teams are each ranked highly in CIF Southern Section Division 4, with Laguna at No. 3 and Estancia at No. 4.
"We're just going to be more focused," Estancia senior Erik Cerros said. "We have to go in there focused and ready to play, and that's what some of the [doubles] teams didn't do when we played Laguna the first time."
The Eagles' doubles teams didn't have to do much against the Mustangs (0-10, 0-5). They played just one set each.
Costa Mesa had to forfeit six doubles sets, as it was only able to field one doubles team. That team, senior Mike Nguyen and junior Jose Cueves, fell to Estancia's No. 1 team of seniors Robert Marrone and Matt Thomas, 6-4, in a well-played set. They also lost to the Eagles' Cerros and sophomore Sterling Gates, 6-2.
But Nguyen and Cueves won their final match of the day, 6-2, picking up Costa Mesa's only set win. Estancia sophomores Charlie Griffen and David Doran, as well as senior Joseph Kidane, each won twice in singles. Their substitutes in the third round — Aaron Cervantes, Uriel Soto and Kyle Hastings — also all won easily.
It was the second time the Eagles had beaten their cross-town rivals this year, following a 13-5 victory on the teams' league opener March 12. Estancia probably would have won Wednesday's match even with a full Mesa team.
This is the Eagles' best squad in years. Two of their four losses have come to teams ranked above them in Division 4, No. 2 Garden Grove and No. 3 Laguna. The other two losses were to programs in higher divisions, Edison and Laguna Hills.
"It's fun beating people that we didn't beat last year," Thomas said.
Costa Mesa Coach Janet Migaki said a couple of the Mustangs have dealt with academic issues, and one player broke his leg. Two of Mesa's singles starters Thursday, Steven Vu and Khanh Nguyen, are freshmen who didn't play tennis before this school year.
"We've been defaulting two [teams] pretty much all season," Migaki said. "We've been automatically starting off 0-6 ... They're beaten up, but they're holding on, and they've gotten incredibly better. They're to be commended for carrying the load of the school without wilting."
Migaki said the number of kids going out for tennis has decreased in recent years, and not just at Costa Mesa.
"They've been sliding, and all of the coaches have been talking," Migaki said. "Newport Harbor doesn't have a JV team, and I just talked to the Marina people. They're going to their P.E. classes and recruiting. The recruiting is tough, I'm not a coach on campus here, I teach at the next-door high school. I'm trying to figure out what I need to do ... everybody senses it's kind of a phase, with lacrosse in and more of the team sports in. With tennis being so skill-intensive at first, it's tough.
"The numbers would help the social scene a bit. I had one or two kids drop [tennis], because there wasn't enough kids on the team and it wasn't enough social fun ... I commend the team. I'm sitting at the drawing board, trying to figure out recruiting."
Estancia has higher ambitions. The Eagles are still tinkering with their lineup, as Thomas and Marrone were paired in doubles last week. Previously, Marrone said he played singles for three years at Estancia.
"We just started playing together," Thomas said. "We've had our ups and downs."
But, against Costa Mesa this year, everything has been looking up for Estancia.