The best just gets better

A two-time Prep League Most Valuable Player and veteran of team and individual postseason runs during her first two years on the Flintridge Prep tennis team, a span in which she won a combined 100 matches, Kira Lee had certainly set some high standards for herself.

That didn't stop the Rebels singles standout from trying to raise her game even higher during her junior season.

"I practiced a lot during the summer, so I was just hoping to go out there and do my best again this year," Lee says. "I didn't really think about it too much because I didn't want to psyche myself out or anything. I just wanted to take everything one match at a time."

Working from that simple approach, Lee didn't lose a match until the final day of her season, finishing with an incredible mark of 60-1.

"It took a top player playing in the zone to basically beat her," Flintridge Prep Coach Ron Catano says in reference to Lee's lone defeat at the hands of San Marino standout Sarah Gealer in the third round of the CIF Individuals. "It was an impressive way for her to finish the season."

Along the way, Lee dominated the Prep League once again, going 30-0 and helping Prep make the CIF Southern Section Division II playoffs for the second year in a row. Her third straight league MVP award followed shortly.

"She's always been focused and consistent, but I think this year it went to a whole other level," sophomore singles teammate Jenise Vargas says. "She was way more consistent and way more focused and it just helped her a lot to perform better on the court."

In the team playoffs, Lee powered the Rebels to the second round, one step further than the previous season, and saved likely her most impressive achievement for last.

By reaching the round of 32 for the first time in CIF Individuals competition, Lee continued her arc of progressing further each season and cemented her bid for a second straight All-Area Girls' Singles Player of the Year Award, as voted on by the sports writers and editors of the Glendale News-Press, Burbank Leader and La Cañada Valley Sun.

"By the end of the season I felt like I was playing pretty well," Lee says. "Throughout the whole season, you're playing like three matches a week, so really half of it is just getting match play and having that mental game to be playing a whole lot of matches.

"I definitely felt like I had improved over the season."

Lee's improvement was evident in many ways, from her increased win total to her heightened presence as a team leader, but her progress shined most clearly on the biggest stage of the season.

"CIF Individuals is so different from team [playoffs] because you don't have your team there supporting you and going to the court and cheering you on," Lee says. "It's a lot like playing a regular tournament, so I guess it's more intense.

"It was really nice [to get to the third round] because I remember freshman year I lost in the first round and then last year I lost in the second round. I said, 'OK, I'm getting a round further every year, so this is good.'"

Lee opened the individuals at Whittier Narrows Tennis Center on Nov. 19 with a 6-1, 6-0 defeat of Inland Valley League No. 2 Kara Figueroa out of Ramona Convent and reached uncharted territory with her second-round win over Foothill League No. 1 Anne Susdorf of Hart, 6-3, 6-4.

Catano said Lee's relaxed attitude and sharp focus were key to her extended run.

"She was more comfortable with how she was playing and she just really thought less about her game and mentally was just refusing to lose," Catano says. "In the past few years, I think she learned from the opponents she played what to expect. There weren't any surprises, she knew that she would have to play well to advance and I think before she was just sort of overwhelmed by some of the talent she played against."

Lee swept her two sets, 6-0, in the Rebels' Nov. 9 11-7 win over Glendale in the wild-card round of the playoffs before winning three sets while only losing two games in Prep's 10-8 win over Mission Viejo in the first round of the playoffs two days later.

"It gave us a lot of confidence," Vargas says of having a dominant singles player at the top. "Her as an example is like a great example for the rest of the team that they can do as well as she can."

Lee said she had to step up her vocal presence as a junior in order to help the team follow her lead to success.

"There's not so much pressure [with being a No. 1], but I want to set a good example for my team and I just want to support my team and get as many wins on the board for them as I can so we can be closer to a team win," Lee says. "I still think of myself as a little freshman, but I'm an upperclassman now so we do have a lot of younger players on our team and it was really nice to be one of those people to try bringing everybody close together and try to build that team bond.

"When it gets close, you're the one trying to raise everybody's spirits up and give them pep talks."

If her past offseasons are any indication, the Rebels can expect an even more focused and determined Lee to show up next year, which is a scary thought for the Prep League, Division II and anyone who gets in her way at individuals.

"Hopefully, next year I could get to the fourth round or even further," Lee says.

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