Szabo: Newport's good Knight

Newport Harbor High senior Kate Knight has had quite a ride with the Sailors girls' tennis team.

In Knight's first three years on varsity with the Sailors, they won the Sunset League twice, advancing to the CIF Southern Section Division 2 title match in 2010 and '11. Even after Newport Harbor was moved up to Division 1 last year, the Sailors advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

That's what Knight is most proud of, the team accomplishments. Yet she deserves the accolades for her individual performance as well.

Knight was a substitute player as a freshman and sophomore, able to play both singles and doubles. She improved a lot by playing USTA tournaments. Yet she was thrust onto the big stage at the end of that sophomore year, when Coach Kristen Case inserted her into the singles lineup during the Sailors' second run to the CIF title match. She didn't have a choice, as then-senior captain Blake Bakkila suffered a sprained ankle just before the playoffs began.

"It was crazy, but that's just how deep our team is," Knight said. "Anybody's got to be ready to go in at any time. I had to be ready ... there was no other option."

Knight stepped up. She won a singles set in the Sailors' 14-4 Division 2 quarterfinal victory at Arcadia. Two days later, she won another set in Newport Harbor's memorable 11-7 semifinal win at San Marino, a match that lasted four-and-a-half hours.

"That was very big," Coach Kristen Case said. "It's amazing to have watched her grow up the way she has, both on and off the court. She has matured so much, and it's helped her game immensely. She plays now with an incredible amount of confidence. In the beginning, I don't think she quite trusted herself. The talent has always been there, it's just been about her finding her way, and gaining the experience and gaining the toughness. When she first came in, I don't think she saw those amazing qualities she possesses."

A year later, when Knight was a junior, the Sailors' other two singles players — Annie Radeva and Natalie Cernius — did not return to the team. Knight elevated to the No. 1 singles spot, one she's held for the past two years, and advanced to the Sunset League tournament semifinals. She's a co-captain, a position she shares with senior doubles player Reagan Rutter.

Knight has certainly stepped up her play for the Sailors (10-7, 4-1 in league). Heading into their showdown at home against defending league champion Los Alamitos on Tuesday, she has only lost one set in league.

"A huge strength of hers is her knowledge of the game," Case said. "She's such a smart player. She knows what's going on out there, and she knows what she needs to do. And she cares a lot about her teammates. What I love most about her leadership is that she takes care of what she needs to take care of for herself, whether it be getting out and hitting extra backhands on the ball machine or hitting extra serves. She takes care of her, but she always puts the team first."

Knight no longer plays a lot of tournaments, as she said school is her top priority. She also is involved in a number of clubs on the Newport Harbor campus. Last year she was honored by United Cerebral Palsy of Orange County as a volunteer of the year for the Friday Night Club, where high school students earn community service hours by spending time with special needs teens. The Friday Night Club was founded by Cernius, who Knight still considers one of her closest friends. One of Cernius' brothers is autistic.

So Knight is doing as well as a person as she is as a tennis player. But, no matter what happens the rest of the year for the Sailors, she will play a role.

"It's pressure," Knight said of being a senior leader for the Sailors, a role once inhabited by players that Knight herself looked up to. "But I feel like I'm embracing the pressure. It's a great feeling to be able to return the favor."

•Another tennis success story this fall has been the Sage Hill School girls' tennis team. The Lightning have been happy with their progress, and they spent Friday at the happiest place on Earth.

Coach A.G. Longoria took his squad to Disneyland, as he promised the players he would if they could beat Oxford Academy in league. The defending Academy League champion Lightning pulled off the upset, 12-6, over the then-No. 4 ranked team in CIF Southern Section Division 2 on Oct. 4.

Now it is Sage that is ranked No. 5 in the division. The Lightning are also 3-1 in league, just a half-match behind St. Margaret's (4-1 in league). The two rivals play in a big match on Friday at Rancho San Clemente Tennis & Fitness Club.

Before the season, Longoria himself picked his young team to finish fourth in league, behind St. Margaret's, Oxford and Crean Lutheran. But players have stepped up. Longoria said a big 11-7 win over Newport Harbor just before league started gave his players confidence.

Junior Amira Tarsadia and sophomores Jaclyn Gerschultz and Celine Wang have been rock-solid in singles. Longoria said they're his best singles trio since Sarah Geocaris, Stephanie Langer and Ashley Adams on the 2005 team that captured the Division 5 title.

"We're gelling," Longoria said. "We're still young, but we're growing up in a hurry. Hopefully we can keep it going."

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