Like chasing a drop shot that narrowly misses the racket, the playoffs have been just out of reach for the Los Altos High girls tennis team.
The Eagles finished a win shy of making the Central Coast Section team tournament the past two years.
Los Altos’ nine seniors haven’t forgotten that, and new coach Hung Nguyen said his team is motivated to secure a spot this season.
“We want to make CCS – that’s our No. 1 goal,” said Nguyen, Los Altos’ junior-varsity coach the past 11 years. “We hope to finish fourth and get in.”
The top four finishers in the SCVAL De Anza Division automatically qualify for the playoffs, but landing one of those spots is anything but easy. The league is littered with high-caliber teams, and the Eagles dropped their first two De Anza matches last week.
“Palo Alto, Monta Vista and Saratoga are tough,” Nguyen said. “They’re probably among the top teams in Northern California.”
Monta Vista won the top division of the prestigious California High School Tennis Classic earlier this month in Clovis, while Saratoga and Palo Alto advanced to the final four. Another De Anza team, Los Gatos, claimed Division 2.
Los Altos competed in the 80-team event as well. The Eagles went 2-2 in Division 1 to finish 10th out of 16 schools in what Nguyen described as “a tough tournament” played in extremely warm weather. Los Altos defeated Tamalpais and Homestead, a De Anza team the Eagles could conceivably battle for one of the final playoff berths.
“That was huge for CCS,” Nguyen said. “It was icing on the cake.”
Los Altos pulled out a 4-3 decision on Marika Lee’s come-from-behind victory at No. 4 singles. The junior lost the first set decisively, rallied from a 4-1 deficit to win the second and claimed the match by winning a super tiebreaker 10-5 in the third.
Prior to their trip to Clovis, the Eagles played rival Mountain View in a non-league match to open the season. Los Altos overwhelmed the younger Spartans 6-1.
“We’re a pretty experienced team,” said Nguyen, who has 11 returnees among his 17 players, “and there’s more depth than last year.”
The Eagles’ start six seniors, two of them in singles. Jamie Eng returns as the No. 1 singles player, though fellow senior Alex Kouvelas or sophomore Lauren Liu could unseat her.
“The top three are very competitive,” Nguyen said. “We’ll have some open challenges (to play No. 1).”
Eng has been hindered by a shoulder injury, according to the coach, but is improving. She and top doubles player Vienna Rye, another senior, are the team captains.
No. 2 player Kouvelas “is doing well,” Nguyen said, and the coach is excited about the potential of No. 3 player Liu.
“She’s talented,” he said of the sophomore. “She’s our future.”
Nguyen said the Eagles’ strength probably lies in singles, “but the De Anza talent is so deep in singles, we may have to rely on doubles to win matches.”
Rye and sophomore Ali Dyer sit atop Los Altos’ doubles ladder. The duo went 2-2 in Clovis.
“They’re still gelling – it’s their first year playing together – but they should be very strong once they know each other,” Nguyen said.
Tina Chen and Sae Lome Lee are at No. 2, while fellow seniors Annie Reid and Sarah Loenber have a tenuous hold on the third spot. Sophomore Meg Nichols and freshman Katie Kouvelas (Alex’s sister) are closing in on them, according to Nguyen.
“I expect more contributions from Meg and Katie,” he said. “Katie is raw, but she’s very calm and will be good for the future.”
Nguyen is used to coaching young players on the JV level, and he said having worked with most of the Eagles previously has eased the transition to varsity coach.
“I know the varsity girls, and that helps,” said Nguyen, who replaces longtime coach Cuong Duong, now at Valley Christian. “I know their strengths and weaknesses.”
But Nguyen acknowledged that the promotion also means more pressure.
“I’ll probably be under more scrutiny,” he said. “But it’s more exciting – it counts more.”
And if Los Altos is to win more – and make the playoffs – Nguyen knows what the team must do.
“We lost a lot of matches 4-3 last year,” he said. “We need more balance and depth, and to find a way to win that extra match.”
The Eagles (4-4 overall) are scheduled to visit Homestead 3:30 p.m. Thursday.