More than two years ago, some of the girls on the Laguna Hills High School tennis team talked Jack Hodges into coaching the varsity.
Hodges, who coaches baseball and had been a junior varsity tennis coach, didn't hesitate. He knew he was stepping into a good thing. Laguna Hills was coming off of a South Coast League championship and, as he puts it, he "inherited a lot of good girls."
Nevertheless, the Hawks have reached a new level altogether.
Laguna Hills, which has been one of the county's better programs, is set to begin the Southern Section 3-A playoffs against Charter Oak Thursday at 2 p.m. as the No. 3-seeded team.
San Marino is top-seeded in 3-A. Cerritos is No. 2 and Diamond Bar is fourth.
San Marino is the two-time defending 3-A champion and has won four times since 1982. Laguna Hills is trying to become the first Orange County team since Laguna Beach, in 1981, to win the 3-A title.
Seniors Katrina Heppler, Kim Wright and Mai Nguyen have been a prime reason Laguna Hills has lost only three matches in the past three years and only one since Hodges became coach before the start of last season.
"A lot of our best players are sophomores," Hodges said. There are only three seniors on the team.
This season, the Hawks are 18-0 and have won the Pacific Coast League for the second year in a row. Included in the wins are two victories over sixth-ranked Laguna Beach, which also is a member of the Pacific Coast League. Laguna Hills' only close call was a 9-9 match with El Toro that went in the Hawks' favor on number of games won, 85-68.
The biggest reason for the Hawks' success, Hodges said, is a local club.
"Most of them (the Laguna Hills players) come from the Nellie Gail Tennis Club," Hodges said. "They work with the pro there year round.
"A lot of high school players haven't played, haven't even picked up a racket, until they were in junior high. That's too late. No matter how talented you are, if you haven't started by 14, it's too late."
Most, if not all, of the Hawk players play in outside junior age-group tournaments throughout the year.
Hodges' No. 1 singles player this year is Jenny Marques. Though she is just a sophomore, she has been the Hawks' No. 1 player since she was a freshman.