Benefield: Maria Carrillo girls tennis looking to extend dominance

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Maria Carrillo girls tennis coach Bob Klyce had a get-to-know-you event for the team on the eve of the season. It was the usual — introductions, maybe a quick bit of biographical information or something funny revealed about each player.

As a slew of talented freshmen introduced themselves, each said when she’d started playing tennis. The most common answers were 4 years old, 5 years old, maybe a late bloomer at 6.

“(One player) said she started late, she started at 7,” Klyce recalled. “They all started laughing.”

Such is the roster of the 2019 Pumas that those who started playing tennis at 7 are considered newbies.

“Their foundation is extraordinary,” Klyce said.

The team that dominated the North Bay League-Oak Division last season lost not one of their top singles players to graduation. The Pumas’ No. 1, Sophia Nguyen, is just a junior, as is their No. 2 player, Teresa Liang. No. 3 is sophomore Vaska Wysocki and their No. 4 is senior Mia Bittner.

“We just got a lot of incoming freshmen that are insanely good,” Nguyen said. “So we were already good before with our top half and our doubles, but now our freshmen came in and they really filled up our doubles, so we have a solid lineup throughout the team even into exhibition.”

“We have, I’d say, a pretty good chance of winning sectionals, but we’ll see,” she said.

Last year the Pumas earned the No. 12 seed (and a home match in the opening round thanks to being league champs) in the Division 1 NCS tournament but fell 5-2 to No. 5 seed Tamalpais High.

“Last year we won NBLs and moved on to NCS but unfortunately lost in the first round of NCS, so I’m thinking that we want to defend the NBL title and also move on farther in NCS this year,” Bittner said. “I think we can make it to NCS finals. We have a really strong team, a really young team too. We have a lot of new, young talent in doubles right now. I think there is a lot of potential.”

Their league rivals openly acknowledge the strength of the Pumas’ roster. Most of the top players play club tennis, so coaches and athletes know the strength of the top singles players around.

“They are solid,” Cardinal Newman head coach Tony Greco said. “Right now, their top four is pretty tough.”

The Cardinals, who boast one of the top singles players around in junior Georgina Sierocinski, suffered a blow when she went down with a foot injury. She’s expected to be out for weeks, Greco said.

In the meantime, senior Isabella Brunner has moved to the Cardinals’ No. 1 and junior Katrina Swenson-Aguirre will play second. Jenna Rafla-Yuan is likely at the three spot and Isabella Blakely is projected to play fourth.

“We are building and rebuilding and trying to get stronger,” Greco said. “We are going to just give them a fight.”

Another squad that is focused on rebuilding is Montgomery. The Vikings are without the services of sophomore Georgia Beard, the defending North Bay League singles champ, who chose not to play high school tennis this season.

“We are building. We are all beginners,” Vikings coach Joshua Silverman said.

And from what he saw last year, the Pumas are still the team to beat.

“I would assume that Newman is the only possible challenge for them,” he said. “Carrillo is so deep. They are likely to win the NBL without too much challenge.”

Which can be a challenge unto itself. The Pumas ran roughshod over league opponents last season and this season should be more of the same. That provides a bit of a conundrum for Klyce, who has to fill the team’s schedule with opponents likely to test his crew, give them experience and impress the section seeding committee come tournament time.

“I tell them, ‘This is the season,’” he said of the pre-league competition. “I think we are going to just plain run away with the league. This is our season. We have to fight hard for this, then we get a better seeding at NCS. They know all about that.

“If you don’t want to have to play the first seed, you better have a successful preseason and play teams that are good,” he said.

To that end, the Pumas have so far faced (and beaten) Piedmont 6-1 and Marin Academy 7-0. Piedmont won the Division 2 title from 2013-2017 and was the top seed in the Division 2 tournament last year before the tournament was called because of poor air quality. Marin Academy was the eighth seed.

For further perspective, Marin Academy beat Cardinal Newman 7-0 in the opening match of the Cardinals’ season on Aug. 29.

The Pumas have also scheduled Redwood High for Sept. 19 and California High on Sept 25. League competition starts Sept. 26 at Montgomery.

Meanwhile, the Pumas play each other — creating some of the stiffest competition they will see all season.

“We know that we are all helping each other improve,” Bittner said. “My hardest match this week was against my good friend Vaska.”

So Klyce’s job going forward will largely be managing his intrasquad challenge matches and keeping his focus on the Pumas’ longterm goal — a run at NCS.

“They aren’t physically intimidating. You see them and they don’t look like they would be that good,” he said. “But when they get on the court?”

Klyce didn’t answer his own question. He didn’t have to.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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