First published in the Nov. 18 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
It might come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the peculiarities of high school team tennis that the thrilling finish to a match is more of an exception than the rule.
The point that eventually secures victory for one team and spells defeat for the other often takes place during an otherwise nondescript match on a far-off court. Frequently, the athletes themselves are not aware of the importance of an individual match until an elaborate reporting process has taken place and a forensic examination of the scores reveals the time of victory — or defeat — for one team or the other.
None of the above occurred last Friday afternoon at the Claremont Club, site of the CIF Southern Section Division I final, where San Marino faced off against La Cañada with the championship hanging in the balance.
This made the proceedings all that more remarkable as the Titans emerged with a thrilling 10-8 win over their Rio Hondo League rivals.
Not only was the deciding match readily identifiable to all those in attendance at the unique tennis-only facility, but everyone with a rooting interest had gravitated toward the court where the San Marino High School doubles team of Valerie Kuo and Katie Lui overcame a 5-3 deficit and survived two championship points to pull off a 7-5 win in the deciding game.
To make matters even more daunting, Kuo and Lui had to defeat the Spartans’ combination of senior Natalie Son and junior Riley Thornburg for San Marino to have any chance at victory as La Cañada had the match wrapped up if the final score were to have been 9-9 and CIF officials had to revert to which team had won the most games.
But with seemingly every nook and cranny surrounding the court that held the final set filled with players and family members — only immediate family members of the participants were permitted to attend due to COVID restrictions — the last players on the court staged a classic. But credit Kuo and Lui for perseverance and fortitude as the two juniors rallied before collapsing in a symphony of smiles and tears when the winning shot was struck.
“Things started to change after we saw the score reach 3-5, because we actually had to fight for every point,” Lui said after the match. “I felt nervous throughout the entirety of the match, but even more when [Coach] Mel [Pereira] told us that our game would determine the outcome of the entire match.”
Kuo and Lui had never before faced this particular pairing and both agreed that the support of their teammates provided the extra impetus they needed to prevail.
“During the final match, I felt determined to win as we made it this far and I didn’t want to let my teammates down,” Kuo added. “Their passionate cheering also encouraged me and gave me energy to keep going.”
“Our team’s constant cheering and reminder to take each point one at a time played a big part in helping us close up the game,” she said. “But even then, I could feel my legs shaking a bit during match point.”
In the stratified world of high school tennis, there are what many refer to as “tournament” players and those with a more casual approach to the game. While both Kuo and Lui have dabbled in the more competitive youth tennis circuit, both acknowledged they are more in it for fun. “I’m a ‘recreational player’ as Coach Mel calls it,” Lui said with a laugh.
Leading up to the winner-take-all final set, there was plenty of other tennis played last Friday and most of it was just as tense. San Marino’s top doubles team of senior Elaine Wu and junior Selina Wu swept their three Spartan opponents by an aggregate score of 18-2 to pace the Titans. Isabelle Kang and Camdyn Wu picked up two wins — including one by tiebreaker — to add valuable points and Kuo and Lui also went 2-1.
La Cañada loaded up their singles lineup to offset San Marino’s advantage in doubles and it almost worked. Sophomore Olivia Center went 2-1 for the Titans and freshman Tianmei Wang also grabbed a hard-fought set. Freshman Giselle Gandakusuma also battled hard in singles action but couldn’t forge a point.
Camdyn Wu summed up San Marino’s sentiments afterwards.
“La Cañada has always been a tough opponent of ours, so it was exciting to play them one more time and be able to win the championship,” said the senior co-captain. “I think this speaks to our team’s tenacity and resilience throughout the season.”
San Marino defeated La Cañada twice during the Rio Hondo League regular season by identical scores of 11-7, but Spartan Coach Will Moravec doubled down on his singles lineup for the final. It almost worked.
Pereira, who is famous for his match-day nerves, called the almost four-hour ordeal “a roller coaster.”
“When we were announcing the lineups, I figured out what La Cañada was doing,” Pereira said. “They changed their lineup, and I don’t blame them.”
Still, San Marino appeared to be in the driver’s seat with a 9-5 advantage. But the Spartans scored a couple of upset victories and appeared to be poised for victory, until Kuo and Lui pulled their magic act.
Pereira considered not telling the pair that they were playing the deciding match, but eventually realized they needed to know the gravity of the event.
“I had no choice,” Pereira said. “I told them that we had to win the game.
“I give them a lot of credit. Katie was chipping the ball and bringing La Cañada forward and Valerie was so consistent. I am proud of both of them.”
With the win, San Marino concluded the season with a 16-1 overall record after finishing Rio Hondo League play with a spotless 8-0 mark.
You don’t have to be an expert on Melwin Pereira to sense that this one seemed a little special. In his 12 years at SMHS, his teams have won three CIF girls’ titles and two CIF boys’ crowns.
“To win a Division 1 title is very tough,” he said. “I am very proud of the girls, especially on the day of the finals. It is an impossible feat to beat La Cañada three times in one season. Our girls went out and executed the game plan. Just to come up with this title was amazing.”