CALABASAS — How's this for team discipline? The top three players on the Calabasas High girls' tennis team rarely attend more than one practice a week, they reserve the right to miss occasional matches, and when they do practice, they come and go as they please.
Coach Bill Bellatty not only doesn't mind, he is grateful they show at all.
At many schools in the area, top players such as Granada Hills' Meilen Tu, ranked in the nation's top 20 in 18-and-under singles, often forgo high school competition. Others, such as Camarillo's Monique Allegre, play against only the toughest opponents.
But at Calabasas, sophomores Kirsten Gross and Shera Wiegler and freshman Deborah Pepkowitz--all ranked in the top 50 in the 16-and-under division in Southern California--plan to juggle membership on the high school team with the demands of junior tournaments throughout their high school careers. All three have played in junior tournaments at the national level.
"They'll play most of the matches but won't play all of them," Bellatty said. "Even for some of the tough nonconference matches, I won't be pressed to play them. I've got girls who have other commitments. For them, it's like having another commitment."
The girls spend more time practicing with private coaches than they do with the Coyotes, usually for as many as three hours a day. And Bellatty tries to work matches around the practice schedule of his three top players.
Other Calabasas players tolerate the arrangement because they understand the amount of time the team's top three players spend working on their games. It also helps that Gross (34-5 in sets), Wiegler (37-5) and Pepkowitz (36-6) are popular with teammates.
"What we like to do is have the doubles players challenge them, but we usually wind up losing," said Calabasas senior Sheryl Rosenthal, who plays No. 1 doubles. "We're all good friends outside of tennis. It's good that we have people on our team who are good; it's more fun that way. We know they're not slacking off."
So far this season, the arrangement is paying off. The Coyotes are ranked fifth in the Southern Section Division II, a position they have held since the start of the season.
The Coyotes are 10-4 with two of the losses coming against Palos Verdes Peninsula--ranked first in Division I and considered one of the top teams in the nation--and Marlborough--ranked third in Division II.
Although Gross, Wiegler and Pepkowitz enjoy special status, teammates treat them like any other member of the team, especially Pepkowitz.
"They don't let me forget that I'm just a freshman," she said. "My nickname is Toddler because of my size, and they call all the freshmen Happy Meal, after the meal at McDonald's."
Pepkowitz and Gross are quick to agree that the camaraderie is the main benefit of playing for the Coyotes. All three players help one another prepare and offer encouragement during matches.
Besides sharing strategy, the trio share the spotlight of the No. 1 position. Bellatty juggles the lineup depending on who played best the match before. For the first match of the season, he flipped a coin between Wiegler and Gross to see who would get the top slot.
"I've known Deborah since she's been about nine years old and first started playing," Wiegler said. "We've known each other just by growing up through the Calabasas school system."
Wiegler and Gross also helped Pepkowitz make a smooth transition to playing high school tennis by telling her what to expect and explaining some of the strategy differences between tournament tennis and high school matches, which are one set instead of best two-of-three.
"The strategy is completely different during the matches in high school," Gross said. "Each game is important to the team, and it's great to hear them behind you during a match rooting you on."
The girls' private coaches support the high school careers of their proteges in varying degrees. Pat Paccinelli, Gross' private coach for the past year, is comfortable with Gross playing for her high school team because she is around players comparable in talent.
But Paccinelli worries about the rest of her career at Calabasas, fearing the quality of opponent she will face will drop.
"My (private) coach doesn't really want me to play next year but we're working on it," Gross said. "I'm going to play as long as it doesn't interfere with my time with him, then he doesn't care."
Desi McBride has been coaching Pepkowitz for nearly six years and encouraged her to play for Calabasas. Playing at the high school level allows Pepkowitz to be part of a team and gives her a chance to play tennis without much pressure, he said.
Wiegler's coach, Dexter MacBride, has coached other Calabasas players and endorses the arrangement. "It's tough to make a commitment and allow for the practice time but at a school like Calabasas, which has talented players, it works," he said.