Girls' Tennis: Sailors start strong

NEWPORT BEACH — The first day of high school brings new classes, new friends and a new designation as a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior.

For the Newport Harbor High and Costa Mesa girls' tennis teams, it also brought a season-opening match on Tuesday.

"Everything's coming at you at once," Newport Harbor senior co-captain Kate Knight said. "I mean, we've known the entire summer that there was going to be a match on the first day of school. It's an exciting day."

Both teams were indeed excited to get the season underway. The Sailors were probably a little bit more excited with the result.

They blanked the Mustangs, 18-0, at Newport Harbor High.

Showcasing a very young lineup that includes six sophomore starters, the Sailors were impressive. Knight, a four-year varsity player, won just once at No. 1 singles before she was subbed out. Sophomore Kylie McCullough came in and picked up two more wins. Sophomores Peyton Espley-Jones and Jen Kingsley swept at No. 2 and 3 singles, respectively.

Newport sophomores Kendall Cosenza and Anna Burke swept at No. 1 doubles, as did senior co-captain Reagan Rutter and junior Annie LaGrandeur at No. 2 doubles. Sophomores Livy Zehnder and Elle Zielinski won twice at No. 3 doubles, before junior subs Claudia Davis and Courtney Howarth won as subs in the last round.

"Everyone came out with really good energy and kept it throughout the entire match," Rutter said. "That definitely helped us stay confident and not get too overzealous with anything. It kept us composed, and we were able to keep it together and come out strong. Everyone played really well, so it's really good for our first match."

Every doubles set was 6-0, 6-1 or 6-2. The Sailors did not seem to appear nervous, which could have been expected with four starters — Kingsley, LaGrandeur, Zehnder and Zielinski — making their varsity debuts.

"I've been really impressed with the sophomores on the team," Knight said. "Personally, in my past three years I've been on pretty much senior-dominated teams. There's been lots of upperclassmen every year, and it's always been looking up to the upperclassmen. Now we're the two captains, and we're the smallest [grade], the seniors. I think it's really impressive, their maturity and their ability to step up, when they're the one who are pretty much dominating the population of our team."

Coach Kristen Case saw that the Sailors were able to stay intense despite the lopsided match score. There were always still the yells of support that are a staple of a Case-coached team.

"I definitely see this group, they definitely are like a family," Case said. "They care about each other so much off the court, that they're not even focused on numbers and scores. They just want to be there to support their teammates, so they know they have each other's back. Everything that they do is with the purpose and intent to enlarge one another, and that's what makes this team so special. Ultimately, I believe that's what lifts these girls to greater heights with their games. They want to do better so much for their teammates, that it really causes them to improve to levels that I don't think they ever knew were possible."

Costa Mesa is led by first-year head coach Benny Quinonez. He graduated from Costa Mesa in 2011, playing doubles under former coach Jan Migaki. Quinonez's background is more in lacrosse, which he played in his native state of Utah and also at Concordia University, but he said he has always loved tennis as well.

The closest that the Mustangs came to winning a set was in the second round, when senior lefty Stephanie Rand nearly pulled one out in singles. She was tied at 4-4 with Espley-Jones, before Espley-Jones earned a key break of serve and served out the set.

Quinonez is counting on leadership from players like Rand and fellow senior singles player Hoan Nguyen, as well as Mesa's No. 1 doubles team of Mahina Won-Milho and Susana Rowe. Both of them previously played singles for the Mustangs.

"They just need to get the chemistry," said Quinonez, 20. "This year's going to be all about learning, for them, and especially for me as a head coach. I'm excited and I can't wait. It's going to be a good season."

Costa Mesa plays at Marina on Wednesday, while Newport Harbor has a good test at home against Crean Lutheran, which is an emerging team in the Academy League. The Sailors are also at the Lightning Invitational this weekend at The Tennis Club; they're the two-time defending tournament champions.

Young teams often get branded as "rebuilding," but the Sailors are working toward quick improvement with that strong sophomore class.

"Even though we're a young team, I really think that people should not be looking down on us as a threat," Knight said. "We're all working really hard so that we're not at a disadvantage with that."

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