Annie Radeva and Natalie Cernius, two singles starters on the Newport Harbor High girls' tennis team last season, are not planning to return in the fall for the Sailors.
Radeva is an incoming sophomore and Cernius is an incoming junior. They were two of the three singles starters for last year's Sunset League champions and CIF Southern Section Division 2 finalists.
Radeva confirmed the news Saturday after her first match at the 110th annual Southern California Junior Sectionals, and Cernius' mother, Poita, said in an email that her daughter will not be playing for Newport Harbor this fall.
"They're both great girls, and they both have different opportunities that they need to seek out right now," Newport Harbor Coach Kristen Case said. "I 100% support them in that. And I'm excited for next year's team, to rebuild and grow and come together to have another great experience.
"I have nothing but the best of words to say about both Annie and Natalie. I think they're both incredible young women."
Radeva said Saturday that she wants to focus on more individual tournaments, so she could no longer attend the Sailors' practices.
"I love the program," said Radeva, who did not rule out returning in future years. "At the end of the day, I just need to compete individually in these bigger tournaments ... I don't think [just showing up to matches] is fair to the girls. I wouldn't be that good of a teammate if I just showed up. We do a lot of team bonding, and I'd be missing all that, so I don't think that's fair to the girls."
Poita Cernius wrote in an email that her daughter has been offered an opportunity to take the Friday Night Club for Special Needs Teens, an Orange County group she founded, to a national level. Natalie, a pianist, also will be able to devote more time to her music.
"I'm not upset, mostly just sad," Poita Cernius wrote in the email. "Natalie had two idyllic years as a freshman and sophomore — the team went to the CIF championship both years, and she was the Sunset League singles finalist both years. With only two years left in high school, she felt she needed to turn her focus to the other things she loves besides tennis."
Seven starters have left the varsity team since Case became the coach in 2007, albeit for several different reasons. It began with Natalie Cernius' older sister, Ariana, as well as Cynthia Waterman.
In 2010, the Sailors lost incoming senior Rebecca Arnold and incoming sophomore Samantha Stalder, their top two singles players from the previous year. Stalder was at No. 1 singles for Newport Harbor in 2009-10, and Arnold played No. 2 singles. Last summer, Newport Harbor also lost one of its top doubles players, incoming senior Ricki Archie, as she left the team to focus on employment opportunities. The previous year, Archie played at No. 1 doubles with Christina Young.
The parents of both Arnold and Stalder cited rigorous training requirements as a primary reason why their daughters left the Sailors. Arnold's mother, Nancy, wrote in an email Friday that the time commitment is just too much for serious players.
"I know that Kristen has a philosophy that building teamwork creates a team of individuals that perform better than they truly are, and that to create that environment one must be entirely dedicated to the team," Nancy Arnold wrote. "However, it is difficult for most parents to go along with her level of enthusiasm and commitment because there is a difference between tennis (which is an individual sport) and other sports."
In tennis, unlike most other team sports, players are almost always recruited for college based on their individual success at United States Tennis Assn. tournaments.
"No one is recruited from the NHHS tennis team based on their performance at NHHS to play in college," Arnold wrote. "What is looked at by colleges is not how they played on the high school team, but rather their individual ranking. The truth of the matter is that any girl who wants to play at the college level cannot afford to spend her time with the NHHS team.
"... It is an unfortunate situation, but the only solution that makes sense for many individuals that are competing to get into college is to quit the varsity tennis team. [Athletic Director Mike Zimmerman] has stated to me that it is a privilege to be on a varsity team at NHHS, not a right. The price for the privilege to be on the NHHS girls' varsity team is too high."
Christina Young, who played in the program for four years, has a different view. Young, part of the No. 1 doubles team each of the last two years, is far from a dedicated tournament player. But she plans to walk on the women's tennis team at UC Santa Barbara.
"Personally, for me, being on the tennis team was the best experience I've ever had in sports and had at Newport Harbor," Young said. "It was the highlight of my high school experience. Personally, I would never think of quitting the team because it had such a quality impact on me. Kristen doesn't just teach us how to be good tennis players. She teaches us how to be good people, and good students ... High school tennis isn't necessarily for everyone, but for me it was the best thing that I've ever done."
Young said she has had no problem with the way the program has been run, even if it has meant some of her classmates — and friends — have left the team.
"I think it's fair the way the Kristen has set it up," Young said. "You have to show your team that you're giving 100% ... it depends on the person. If I didn't have the high school team and Kristen, I wouldn't be where I'm at or going to play in college. My family can't afford for me to have private lessons three or four times a week. Having that team there to hit with me whenever I need to, or to train or go condition with me, that has been huge. I know I would not have gotten any of that if I was just a singles tournament player."
Case declined to discuss specifics of the program's operation, but pointed to the team's success.
"Once the team is made and there are team practices, yes, I like the girls to be at the team practices," Case said. "It's all about teamwork. The only reason we've been able to accomplish what we've accomplished is due to teamwork. The teamwork aspect is more important to me than winning titles."
Fletcher Olson, a longtime coach who remains affiliated with the team, said the summer program, which typically consists of running in the morning and practice in the afternoon, is nothing new. Once the team tryouts take place in early July, the summer camp consists of running with the team three days a week from 6:30-7:30 a.m., as well as hitting for two hours in the afternoons four times a week. On Friday mornings running and hitting takes place for three hours.
"If you look at water polo and football, it's pretty much on par with what everyone else does," Olson said. "The program that we have in place has been in place for 22 years. Not a lot of change."
At the time her daughter left the team, Stalder's mother Diane said Samantha still wanted to play for Newport Harbor. But the time commitment was too great, as she also wanted to play more tournaments in the summer and spend time with her private coach.
Radeva is currently ranked No. 91 in the Southern California girls' 16s. Stalder is No. 70 in the 18s.
Zimmerman said he has no issue with Case's policies.
"She's teaching these girls, and boys for that matter, discipline and life lessons that they can take with them beyond the tennis court," Zimmerman said. "I think that some people are just not willing to make the commitment. You know, it's tough, especially when you have talented kids who choose not to play. It's hard, but it's like a good teacher not wanting to drop their standards and having the students rise to their level. Kristen is certainly the same way. I only can say great things about her. She's a motivator, she's a self-starter and she gets the most out of the people she coaches.
"If parents feel that she's a little too strict, I hate to say it but maybe this is not that the program for them. The success that they've had is self-evident."
Other local high school teams have typically done things differently than Newport Harbor. In the fall of 2010, Corona del Mar Coach Brian Ricker simply gave nationally ranked transfer Lynda Xepoleas a list of important matches she needed to attend. Xepoleas now plays at Purdue and was recently named the Ohio Valley Region Rookie of the Year by the ITA.
Ricker said he has changed his policies on in-season attendance and now requires all players to be present at practices and matches. However, his off-season summer camps, like those run by Sage Hill head man A.G. Longoria, remain strictly optional. Ricker said most of the top singles players do not attend them.
"Summer camp is different things to different people," Zimmerman said. "[The Sailors] come back off of dead week and they get excited to try out, and they're trying to get their team set for next year. She's going to be demanding and ask a lot of the girls ... She's fair, and the rules are the same for everybody, whether you're the best player or you're the last player on the team. She expects maximum effort, and as a coach I don't think that's too much to ask anyone, to make a commitment and be part of it."
Other programs, such as powerhouse University, have much different philosophies. Coach John Kessler allows his players to practice elsewhere during the season as well.
"Coach Case is one of the most respected and hard-working coaches in CIF," Longoria wrote in an email. "If she were coaching any other sport — softball, volleyball, soccer — her style would be "spot on." It is more difficult in an individual sport, especially with the Southern California mentality about tennis where the individual comes first and team is second. I do not know about other states, but in Texas (where I am from) all but the very highest top players all play high school tennis. For example, the lowest starting player on varsity would have a high USTA ranking, which is not usually the case in California.
"Kristen develops players and definitely is teaching lifelong skills that go far beyond the life of school, college or USTA tennis. Her teams are always prepared, disciplined, in the best shape, show great sportsmanship, are always enthusiastic, and of course, place team above self. It takes a great amount of energy and dedication to run a program like hers. It may not be for everyone and every player has to make a choice, but those that are part of her program, even if ranked players, definitely know the relationship of hard work, respect, discipline, and teamwork with success ... Funny, I don't remember many individual names on her teams, but I sure know about Newport Harbor tennis."
The Sailors have been successful under Case. They won their fourth straight Sunset League title last year and advanced to the Division 2 championship match for the second straight year.
This fall, the Sunset League has been moved up to Division 1.