As the Flintridge Prep boys’ tennis program grew over the last several seasons from a perennial afterthought to one of the school’s success stories — winning and contending for Prep League titles annually and making a string of CIF playoff appearances — doubles players Eric Kazangian and Kent Byun served as cornerstones of the reconstruction.
“They were huge,” Rebels Coach Ron Catano said of Kazangian and Byun’s role in the renaissance that saw Prep go 29-21 over the past three seasons and win the Prep League crown in 2009 for the first time since 1939. “Those two guys, along with [No. 1 singles] Alex Wood, they were the reason why we had a such a good record the past three years. They were all talented and experienced for tournament play and they were just really tough when they would get out there.
“They were our good core guys that just put up wins like crazy. They’re just super talented and they’re great athletes. Without those guys, we wouldn’t have been doing so well the past few years.”
In the first two years of his current tenure, which began in 2009, Catano had often teamed the two seniors, Kazangian and Byun, together with great results — they went 18-0 in league in their first year playing together as sophomores. He had also been known to split them up and have Kazangian, a No. 2 singles player as a freshman, go solo when team matchups dictated.
It was a dynamic that worked well enough until this year, when Kazangian’s knee injury suffered during football season forced Catano’s hand in forming his doubles lineup.
"[Kazangian] was complaining about some soreness and he never complained the past three years about anything,” Catano says. “I thought maybe it’s a better idea if he played with Kent, since Kent seemed to only want to play with Eric. Sticking them together just seemed like a no-brainer and they had the experience together.”
With Kazangian’s mobility limited, the Rebels’ lineup options overall may have been hindered, as well, but the change had the silver lining of bringing out yet another stellar season from one of the Rebels’ top tandems.
“I thought we actually had a really hard time playing together at first,” Byun says of his and Kazangian’s collaboration in past seasons, when they were more often split up and played in the singles bracket, as matchups dictated. “This was the first season where we played most of our matches together.”
Kazangian and Byun played together more than ever this season and the consistency and stability of that arrangement provided the duo with the opportunity to excel in doubles competition to the extent of being voted Boys’ Tennis Doubles Team of the Year by the sportswriters and editors of the Glendale News-Press, Burbank Leader and La Cañada Valley Sun.
“I think it’s all about chemistry to be honest,” Kazangian says. “Once you set kind of a groundwork for your skills and the technique and everything, doubles is a lot more than that. It has a lot to do with how much you’ve played together. Me and Kent were around each other a lot, we were good friends, so that helped us out. We were pretty close on the team and we just made it work after playing for three years.
“We communicated well on the court. I think all three years just kind of culminated with us being able to play well as a doubles team.”
Kazangian and Byun went 34-6 on the year and 15-3 in league to help the Rebels finish second for the second straight year. They helped Prep reach the CIF Southern Section Division II playoffs for the third year in a row and came a tiebreaker away from advancing to the second round of the CIF Individual Tournament.
And they did it all by buying into some basic concepts of teamwork on the court — covering each other’s back and relying on each other’s strengths to supplement their own weaknesses.
“Eric wasn’t the best doubles player, but his strengths [were that] he was very steady and very consistent,” Catano says. “He didn’t make very many mistakes, while Kent was the guy who was not as consistent, but knew how to play doubles. He could put the ball away and he just knew strategy better than Eric. Eric followed his lead and they just complimented each other very well with their styles.”
While the duo had plenty of quality wins to look back on by season’s end, it was the final match of the season — a 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 10-8 loss to Benson Lu and Alvin Huang of San Gabriel in the CIF Individuals Tournament — that in many ways epitomized their resiliency and compatibility.
“We were kind of nervous in the beginning, we weren’t playing too well, but we just kept each other going,” Kazangian says. “We just kept the positive energy going on between us. My knee was hurting pretty bad because I had had a bad knee for a while, but he said he would try to run all the shots down and I could pretty much just stand there and serve as hard as I could and hit my shots back as hard as I could. We pretty much kept that strategy going and we started playing better progressively through the match.
“We were unlucky to lose the game, but I honestly thought that was one of our better matches that we played. We really tried hard that day.”
The biggest letdown about the loss for Kazangian and Byun was missing the opportunity to extend their career together for one more match.
“I think we were really starting to get it by the time the season ended,” Byun says. “Doubles is definitely more of a strategy game than a skill game.”
As time passes, Kazangian and Byun figure to be remembered for more than just an outstanding senior season.
“It feels really good because Prep tennis has always kind of been looked down upon, especially after so many years of not winning anything,” Kazangian says of playing a central role, along with Byun, in bringing pride back to Prep’s tennis tradition. “I remember my freshman year before we came in, we just pretty much lost almost every single game and it was pretty demoralizing. I didn’t even want to play the next year, but coming back the next year, everyone just worked really hard.
“I’m just proud that we kind of brought a little bit of recognition to our team again.”