Battling the odds in high school tennis

Special to The CambrianNovember 28, 2012 

Senior tennis players Alex Zaragoza (left), Morgan May and Kylie Castle pose at Cate School after the three lost their matches at the CIF tournament Nov. 19. May and Castle played doubles at Carpinteria High School, losing 0-6, 06, and Zaragoza lost her match at Cate School, 1-6, 1-6.


Three talented and genial Coast Union student-athletes joined a reporter at a local sandwich shop on a blue-sky, sunny day after Thanksgiving, four days after their taxing CIF first-round playoff defeats in the Santa Barbara area on Nov. 19.

Seniors Alex Zaragoza, Kylie Castle and Morgan May candidly answered questions as to why they swat tennis balls thousands upon thousands of times — hustling after errant lobs and dashing left and right to return serves — in a sport that gets only a smidgen of attention from the school and the community.

Dutifully and faithfully, they practice after school week in and week out in preparation for matches they have only slim chances of winning. Because CUHS (230 students) is the only Coast Valley League school with tennis courts, the Lady Broncos play a “freelance” schedule.

Hence they are obliged to courageously match skills against powerhouse schools like Atascadero (1,520 students), Arroyo Grande (2,200 students), and Nipomo (1,260 students).

Those stiff challenges notwithstanding, when the Lady Broncos play at home, they do it in relative isolation because Coast Union tennis is not a sport that draws a crowd.

Does that bother these three players? Why put out all that energy to toil alone — for pride? “Not having as many fans as some sports makes our team closer,” said Morgan.

Kylie said that because the team is so closely knit, “We don’t even notice that there aren’t fans there. Fans do walk by and say, ‘Go girls!’ or ‘Go Broncos!’ — but for me it’s better the way it is because there is less pressure,” Kylie explained.

Alex said she enjoys “... those rare occasions when there is a crowd there. It makes me play better. But as a singles player I have to stay focused” no matter who is watching. “I play tennis because I love it, and I love being out there. I keep that in my head,” she added.

What aspect of tennis holds the most pivotal key to success? For Morgan her athletic ability played the biggest part in earning her a CIF playoff berth (with doubles partner Kylie). Kylie believes mental preparation is key because “…it is a very mental game and emotions play a big part too.”

Alex said, “It’s always been mostly mental for me. I’m not a great athlete, and I’m not a runner. It’s mostly mental and strategy for me.”

Regarding the toughest aspect of the game, both Kylie and Morgan explained that just becoming accustomed to — and technically anticipating — what the other person on their doubles team will do in any given moment on the court is pivotal.

The hardest part for Alex, whose 2012 regular season record was a sparkling 45-6, is the serve. “It’s hard to find the strength and the focus to get that first serve in, and it took me forever to learn how to do that motion. But overall for me, as a singles player, it’s just you out there and your opponent. Most of the time you’re not just playing them, you’re playing against yourself.”

How do these players prepare psychologically when going up against Nipomo and Arroyo Grande? “Whenever you play people better than you, it makes you a little bit better,” Morgan responded, adding that she would rather play tough teams than easy teams.

Kylie admitted that big schools are challenging, but she has learned to put the lopsided talent levels aside and concentrate on the thought that “…we want to win, we want to go to CIF, and we did it.” Alex’s approach when facing a tough school is to “… focus on my game and what I need to do. I try not to get psyched out by who I’m playing. I need to make my shots; my first serve needs to go in, my forehand needs to be good.”

How nervous were these athletes going into the CIF playoffs on Nov. 19? “My nerves hit me the worst when we were warming up,” said Morgan, who, like Kylie, was in her first post-season competition. “I hit the ball into the net five times in a row. I went to take a drink of my water and my hands were shaking. But I kept telling myself it would be OK.”

Kylie said she was “… a little intimidated when we were warming up, and worried because I wasn’t playing my best game.”

Alex was competing in her second CIF playoffs, and she recalled that in 2011 she played “… this beast of a girl” and didn’t win a single game. “This year I knew I wasn’t going to win the match but I wanted to play my best tennis. I wanted to win at least one game in each set, and I did (1-6, 1-6), and I had fun.”

None of the three admitted to having any unique knack for keeping their emotions in check. However, Kylie and Morgan purchased nail polish prior to their match and “painted each other’s nails.” Alex and her parents “… found this doughnut shop and bought a bunch of food, hung out and watched the replay of TV’s ‘Wipeout’ ” episode the day Cambria’s Debbie Markham won.

The moral of this story: In high finance, it’s about maximizing net profits, but in high school tennis, it’s about minimizing the times the ball hits the net.

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