Sobrato High's Ava Valone will compete for the Bulldogs girls tennis team in the fall. (Jonathan Natividad)

Live Oak High rallied past cross-town rival Sobrato High recently to win the El Toro Bowl, the football competition between the two Morgan Hill schools. 

On a sunny breezy Tuesday afternoon, it was “El Toro Bowl 2” as the Bulldogs visited the Acorns in girls tennis and this time the decision went to Sobrato.

“It is El Toro 2 and we got revenge for the football loss,” said Sobrato head coach Rich Braen.

The Bulldogs won 6-1 in a competition that was less physical than football but just about as even. Two of the matches could easily have gone the other way and the tally would have been 4-3. 

However, the day was more about high-quality competitive and enjoyable tennis than beating the school from three miles down the road. 

Or as one Sobrato player stated, it didn’t mean more to beat Live Oak but it sure meant a short drive for a road contest.

Sobrato won in close decisions at the top two singles matches, captured the other two singles contests and took two of three in doubles. 

The Bulldogs improved to a 3-3 record in both league play and overall, while the Acorns slipped to 0-6 in both league play and overall this season.

Both schools compete in the Blossom Valley Athletic League Santa Teresa East Division, which is led by Piedmont Hills High.

“This was a tough one,” said Live Oak coach Marek Pearse. “We got one win and we had some close ones. I’m proud of how far the team has come this season. I’m proud of my number one Mikyla (Saenz). She fought hard. A couple years ago, we were in the lower division. We’re better and trying to keep that momentum going. They’re having fun. I am proud of all of them.”

The top two singles matches were the most exciting ones of the day, with the biggest highlight being the amazing No. 1 singles contest between Live Oak’s Mikayla Saenz and Sobrato’s Ava Valone. 

Each point seemed to be a long rally of great forehands and backhands. It was not unusual for the ball to go back and forth six or more times before a point was won.

The players split the first two sets that led to a third set tiebreaker, simply a “first to 10 points” decider. Valone prevailed with a 6-7, 6-4, 10-7 victory.

“For me, that was the greatest match of the season,” said Saenz, a senior who has been in the top singles role for four years. “It was a set with a tiebreaker, a set, and then a tiebreaker. That was one of the hardest matches. I tried drop shots and lobs, and hitting to her backhand. [Valone] is very consistent and I just tried to get the ball back in play.”

Even with no-ad scoring and the third set being just the short tiebreaker, the match took over two hours.

Saenz led the first set but Valone came back from a 5-4 deficit and led 6-5 until Saenz forced the first set tiebreaker by rallying from a 15-40 deficit in the twelfth game. 

Saenz won the “first to seven” tiebreaker to win the set, courtesy of strong forehand shots that moved Valone around the court.

In the second set, Valone trailed 4-3 but turbocharged her game to come back for a win and force the third set.
“[Saenz is] a really good player,” Valone said. “I was trying to hit it over but easy, especially on the side with the wind. And I tried to rush to the net more.”

Long rallies continued in the deciding tiebreaker. Valone prevailed, breaking away from a 7-7 tie with a collection of smooth strokes that moved Saenz from side to side and front to back.

“A great match,” Braen said. “Long rallies. And when they miss, they don’t miss by much.”

The No. 2 singles match was also extremely competitive with back-and-forth surges by each player. Sobrato’s Kiera Nguyen started off strong by winning the first set 6-2, but Live Oak’s Keerthi Sriram rallied in the second. 

Sriram was down 5-2 but won the next two sets before Nguyen pulled out the 6-4 decision.

“I had a lot of fun today,” said Nguyen, whose older sisters Jonty and Kylie also played tennis for the Bulldogs. “I began hitting the net a lot but then I started focusing. I reminded myself of what I usually do. I did more topspin shots and bent my knees more. My coach was cheering me on and that helped me focus more.”

Sobrato’s Kennedy Nguyen—no relation—beat Live Oak’s Kat Trod in straight sets (6-0, 6-1) in the No. 3 spot. The Bulldogs also captured the No. 4 singles match, with Roma Shah taking a 6-1, 6-0 decision over Jocelyn Ramirez.

Sobrato’s Makayla Brinquies and Riley Plute rolled to a 6-0, 6-2 win in No. 1 doubles over Live Oak’s Gaby Benitez and Adri Cutrignelli. The Bulldogs’ No. 3 duo of Julia Carlsen and Keanna Mori topped Trinity Stocksick and Vanessa Stephan in two sets (6-1, 6-3).

The No. 2 doubles match was extremely tight. Live Oak’s Izzy Cline and Anaya Stephan rallied from behind to defeat Ythyka Thai and Fernanda Contreras in a three-set tiebreaker (3-6, 6-4, 10-6), giving the Acorns their sole point of the day. 

Depth is crucial in tennis as the six doubles players make a huge contribution to a team win. Each match counts the same, from the No. 3 doubles to top singles matches. 

“We do have a deep team,” Braen said. “There are 25 girls in the program and we are always developing new and young players. We’re in a bit of a rebuilding year. We lost our top three players to graduation. We were very strong in doubles last year and those girls have moved to singles this year. Depth and new players helps.”

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