Sports

Eagles embrace challenge that awaits them in daunting De Anza Division of SCVAL

 Yuu Ishikawa
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Sophomore Yuu Ishikawa is Los Altos High’s No. 1 singles player.

By winning the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League El Camino Division last year, the Los Altos High girls tennis team has been rewarded – or some might say punished – with a promotion to the SCVAL De Anza Division this season.

“We’re in for a big battle in the De Anza,” Eagles coach Hung Nguyen said. “It’s probably one of the toughest divisions in the nation.”

There’s ample evidence to support that claim. The division features last year’s Central Coast Section champion (Los Gatos), a team that reached the CCS semifinals (Saratoga) and three squads that made the quarterfinals (Cupertino, Monta Vista and Los Altos). The league is littered with nationally ranked singles players, including Los Gatos’ Ashley Yeah (reigning CCS singles champ), Cupertino’s Kate Duong (CCS finalist) and Homestead’s Zoe Clydesdale (semifinalist).

Luckily for Los Altos, it has a nationally ranked player as well – sophomore Yuu Ishikawa. The Eagles’ top player embraces the opportunity to compete against the best in the De Anza.

“It’s a challenge to play tougher people, but it’s good for us,” said Ishikawa, who lost to Yeah in the CCS singles semifinals a year ago. “It will make us better.”

The Eagles faced few challenges last season. Los Altos rolled through the El Camino Division (12-0), and their 21-2 overall record included a 20-match winning streak snapped by perennial powerhouse Menlo in the CCS quarterfinals.

It marked the Eagles’ most successful season under Nguyen, now in his 11th year as coach. He knows wins will be much harder to come by this season.

“Realistically, I’m hoping we stay above water,” he said. “I’d be happy with a .500 record (in the division).”

Los Altos already has as many losses as last year, falling 4-3 at Homestead and 6-1 at home to Los Gatos last week to open league.

Welcome to the De Anza.

“It’s just a brutal league,” said Nguyen, whose team edged rival Mountain View 4-3 in a non-league match to open the season Sept. 6. “We’ve got our hands full.”

However, the coach still believes the Eagles can make the playoffs – especially since CCS revised the qualifications this year for at-large selection. Instead of relying on a point system that prioritizes wins, CCS will look at head-to-head competition, record against common opponents, strength of league and prior CCS performance to determine qualifiers.

“I’m so glad,” Nguyen said of the change. “If we can dominate in non-league, it should propel us into CCS.”

Ishikawa is elated as well.

“It gives us a better chance,” she said. “It would be awesome to make CCS as a team again.”

While Ishikawa and the rest of the singles ladder – seniors Celeste Tran and Karina Shah Chavez and sophomore Hannah Ghaffari – are integral to the team’s success, Nguyen expects his doubles teams to decide many of Los Altos’ matches.

“I’ve been training the doubles really hard,” he said, “because we’re going to rely on them a lot.”

Ishikawa is confident the doubles will come through.

“I think doubles is where we have an advantage,” she said. “Our team has good depth.”

That was evident against Mountain View when Ishikawa and all three doubles teams prevailed.

Nguyen called the Eagles’ top tandem – senior Krithika Nathamuni and junior Kylie Akiyama – “our anchors in doubles.”

Juniors Sydney Aaron and Hannah Pashenkov hold down the No. 2 position. They pulled out a three-set win against Homestead Sept. 18.

No. 3 doubles remains fluid. Nguyen typically rotates two duos – seniors Priya Dixit and Katherine Lim, and sophomore Maya Atassi and senior Aditi Madhok – with junior Isabella Borkovic and freshman Emma Boschken waiting in the wings.

“They’re like our fifth doubles,” Nguyen said. “They’re working hard.”

Los Altos is scheduled to host Monta Vista 4 p.m. Thursday. The Eagles travel to San Diego Sept. 28 to compete in the inaugural Point Loma Invitational.

“We’re honored to be invited,” Nguyen said. “It’s a good test for us and should be a good experience.”

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