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Keep Calm And Win CIF Title

Coach Melwin Pereira and senior Anissa Lee with the CIF championship plaque.

The sport of tennis doesn’t offer the typical landmarks for those offering a narrative to someone not in attendance at the event, but Monday afternoon’s CIF girls’ singles championship match was anything but typical. And though San Marino High School senior Anessa Lee had survived a shaky start and was steadily gaining control of her opponent, all doubts about who was going to leave the Seal Beach Tennis Center with the title were laid to rest midway through the third set. Tied at one set apiece and ahead 2-0 in the third, Lee pounded the latest of what was an almost constant barrage of thumping backhands past a lunging Casie Wooten that, despite her opponent’s game effort, slid the rest of the chips to Lee’s side of the table. Wooten placed her hands on her hips, took a deep breath and searched the crisp, cloudless skies for an answer. Finding none, the Chadwick senior succumbed to the inevitable as Lee cruised to a 2-6, 6-0, 6-0 decision and the third girls’ singles championship in school history.

The victory capped a remarkable career for Lee, who will be taking her talents to Vanderbilt, where the daughter of Pearl and Albert Lee has accepted a full ride to play for the Commodores. In her four years of Lady Titan tennis, Anessa lost on only one other occasion, a CIF individual match in her freshman year to St. Anthony’s High School’s Eryn Cayetano, who now plays for the Women of Troy at USC. Otherwise, she was undefeated throughout her career, which ended with her holding the championship trophy amidst her family and a few friends who made the trek southward.

Wooten was a formidable opponent as well, having accepted a scholarship to play at Wake Forest next year. But after dominating the first set by attacking Lee’s serve and serving well, herself, Wooten fell prey to Lee’s trademark patience.

Luana Magnani, right, with teammate Lindsay Irons-Kilmer at the 1998 CIF finals, won the CIF girl’s singles title as a senior in 1999 before an outstanding career at USC. Mitch Lehman Photos

Lee joins Nicole Hummel (1991) and Luana Magnani (1999) as San Marino High School’s two previous champions. Pat Varga and Debbie Westbrook teamed up and claimed the CIF doubles title back in 1972.

Afterwards, Lee acknowledged a case of the jitters, to the point that San Marino High School tennis Coach Melwin Pereira quipped that his star player was “human.”

“I had never seen Anessa that nervous before,” Pereira said. “It is very normal that she was so nervous. She was the #1 seed and she had everything to lose.”

With a couple days to let the experience sink in, Lee agreed.

“I definitely felt the nerves and pressure before going out to play, which doesn’t happen very often,” Lee said. “This was one of the first times I was playing for something bigger than myself, and I really wanted to make my family, friends, and school proud.”

She did.

Wooten controlled the first set, challenging Lee to attack the net and field her drop shots. Pereira noticed that Lee was staying too close to the net, opening up large spaces on the court for Wooten to strike.

“I told Anessa that she didn’t have to come in and then camp out at the net,” Pereira said. “Then you could see her moving back to a better place on the court and waiting it out.”

“Coach Pereira was a great coach throughout the tournament and gave me the feedback I needed to hear,” Lee said. “He told me to be patient and to only come in when I got the right ball.”

With his player facing elimination in what was her final high school tennis match, Pereira encouraged Lee to relax and take deep breaths.

“He told me I had to calm down,” Lee said.

Coach Melwin Pereira and Anessa Lee discuss strategy as Lee tries to overcome a loss in the first set of Monday’s CIF girls’ singles tennis final

She even fell behind in the first game of the second set before she turned things around.

“After that, it was all Anessa,” Pereira said. “I could see in her eyes that she had let the first set go and was focusing on the present. She fought back and believed in herself. She played every game like her life was on the line. And against another top player like Casie Wooten, who will be playing Division 1 tennis, too. That is a great win and it was really impressive that Anessa was able to come back like that. She was able to take direction, and that was the key. But above even her athleticism and tennis skill Anessa is a class act. She knows what she is doing on the court and is never a diva.”

Lee said that Pereira was “a great coach throughout the tournament.”

“He was a huge contributor to my success and I am so thankful and appreciative to have spent the past four years under his instruction,” she said.

Anessa is currently ranked #11 in the nation in the Girls Under 18 age group as determined by tennis recruiting.net. She won the prestigious Easter Bowl singles championship in 2016, was a doubles finalist in the Girls 16 age group at the United States Tennis Associations’ Winter Nationals and made it to the finals of the 2018 United States Indoor Championships.

Last month, she won her third Rio Hondo League singles championship in her three tries, having to sit out her sophomore year due to injury. Her older brother, Connor, is a junior at Georgetown University and plays for the Hoyas. Another older brother, Ryan, was an accomplished tennis player at San Marino High School and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley.

“I feel so humbled and honored to win the CIF championship and proudly represent San Marino High School,” Anessa concluded. It feels amazing to win my last high school match and end my career on a good note. I could not have done it without the help of my family, friends, and coaches and I just feel so blessed.”

The feeling is certainly mutual.

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