First published in the Sept. 9 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
The San Marino High School girls’ varsity tennis team had four months to enjoy its Rio Hondo League championship during last school year’s pandemic-adjusted season, and now it’s time to get back to work.
COVID obliterated the 2020-21 school year, with the sports calendar being one of the facets most chiefly affected. The girls’ tennis season was moved from its traditional slot in the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2021 and summarily halved in its duration. But after seeing so many activities shelved by the pandemic, participants were pleased to see play return in any fashion.
While the circumstances were vastly different, the result was quite familiar for the Lady Titans, who won their 12th consecutive league title in early May, thanks to a razor-thin 10-8 victory over rival La Cañada. The streak was in jeopardy until then-senior Anna Moller and Isabelle Kang, a sophomore at the time, pulled off the win of the day — a 7-5 victory over their final Spartan doubles opponents of the day that provided the tipping point San Marino needed to close out the pesky Spartans. What few at La Cañada High School’s tennis courts knew at the time was that had Moller and Kang lost that set and the match gone to the tiebreaker that is implemented in the event of a 9-9 deadlock in sets, the Spartans would have prevailed 66-65 on the strength of total games won.
Memories of that victory are still fresh in the mind of San Marino head tennis coach Melwin Pereira, who has overseen the entire dozen championship streak.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Pereira said by phone earlier this week. “Anna and Isabelle came through huge for us that day. They were able to take out a college-level player and her partner, who was also an excellent player.”
Moller is gone — the lone graduate from the squad — but Kang is still on a roster that might even be better than the one Pereira sent onto the courts this spring.
Any lineup that includes the name Selena Wu will automatically be competitive. Wu, a junior, won the Rio Hondo League individual singles championship and advanced to the round of 16 at CIF.
“Selina has contributed a lot to our program,” said Pereira. “She can play both singles and doubles for us, which is important because doubles is so important at the high school level. Selina is an excellent player but unfortunately has a shoulder injury. We are hoping she can return very soon.”
Senior Camdyn Wu has emerged as a valuable contributor and has been named a co-captain for the Lady Titans.
“Camdyn has grown into a really good player over the past four years,” Pereira said. “She is a lefthander, and lefties have an advantage. She is one of my most important players.”
Wu teamed up with Valerie Kuo to get three points during last Thursday’s season-opening win over Claremont. “Outside of tennis, she is a very accomplished student who is also involved in important causes,” Pereira continued. “She is a nice, coachable young lady and in the and in the spring, she and Mandy [Rivera] got a crucial point when we defeated La Cañada.”
The aforementioned Mandy Rivera, a sophomore doubles player, stepped in as a freshman and is expected to play a big role again this fall.
“Mandy is one of our key players,” Pereira said. “She is a tournament player who competes throughout the year. She really wants to be a good player. Mandy is a great listener and is also very coachable. I am very excited about her future.”
Junior Valerie Kuo is another top player who can play both singles and doubles.
“I am trying to mold Valerie into a doubles player and getting her to focus on the game,” Pereira said. “It is important that she learns the patterns we use in doubles play. Valerie is a very good player and clearly one of our starters.”
Senior Elaine Wu earned the other co-captain spot.
“Elaine is a very unique player,” Pereira said. “She can play singles and doubles and is two-handed on both sides. She has an excellent forehand but opponents never really know which one is her true forehand. Elaine is one of our key players.”
As a freshman, Wu advanced to the semifinals of the CIF doubles competition.
“Elaine has the valuable ability to forget about mistakes and keep her mind focused on the next point,” Pereira said of Wu, who is also an accomplished basketball player.
Junior Isabelle Kang teamed with Elaine Wu to pick up three points in the win over Claremont.
“I haven’t played her at singles very much because she plays so well at doubles,” Pereira said of Kang. “She follows directions to perfection and competes very well. Her strength is her coachability. Isabelle has the tools.”
Junior Katie Lui is another player who will gravitate toward doubles action.
“We are working very hard on her consistency and hoping that will pay off this year,” Pereira said. “Katie works very hard and when she is on her game, she plays really, really well.”
Sophomore Selene Yung was one of just two freshmen who played during the truncated season this spring.
“Selene is a very hard worker who takes instruction very well,” Pereira said. “She has improved a lot and I am very proud of her for playing in the spring, when many chose not to play. Selene is constantly working on her game and working on her doubles. She is smart and a great listener. Selene is a fighter, likes tennis and and is very motivated.”
Tianmei Wang is one of those once-in-a-generation type of athletes. During Thursday’s win over Claremont, Wang defeated her three singles opponents by identical scores of 6-0, 6-0 and 6-0. Not bad for a freshman.
“I knew she was good but I didn’t think she would give everyone a bagel,” said Pereira, referencing the slang term assigned to a set where an opponent does not win a game. “Tianmei is very consistent and plays very aggressive on the baseline. We are looking for great things from her. She is a very hard worker and a great young lady.”
Two more ninth-graders are jockeying for playing time. Singles player Giselle Gandakusuma is a “hard worker” in Pereira’s estimation.
“Giselle is really motivated,” the coach said. “She wants to get better and is getting better. I am looking for great things from her over the next four years.”
Fellow freshman Carina Yang also specializes in singles play.
“Carina was slowed during the COVID year due to a lack of practice and match play,” Pereira said. “She is picking it up and I am excited about what she can bring to the table.”
Rounding out the varsity roster is sophomore Olivia Center, who recently enrolled at San Marino High School but has not yet been cleared to compete. Center is highly ranked on several recruiting lists.
RUNNING IT BACK
San Marino and La Cañada are expected to continue their heated rivalry when Rio Hondo League play opens later this month. The Lady Titans will head north to square off with their adversaries on Oct. 5, five months to the day after the legendary match which decided the crown that officially is assigned to the 2020 school year.
“La Cañada will again be very good,” said Pereira. “They have a few new players as well as the excellent players who are already on the team.”
Though they lost the league title to San Marino, the Spartans advanced all the way to the semifinals of the CIF Open Division, where they were defeated by Palos Verdes Peninsula High School, the eventual champions. The Lady Titans went to the second round, where Arcadia prevailed.
“Doubles will be the key,” Pereira said. “I just have to do my job and teach my doubles players and get them to compete well, but that will definitely be the key if we are going to be successful.”