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Going Their Own Way : Not All Athletes Take Traditional Path From Preps to College

Private coaching: Leaving high school team wasn't easy for Woodbridge's Chase Exon.

January 27, 1998|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a sophomore, Woodbridge tennis player Chase Exon tasted the best that high school sports had to offer--a Southern Section team championship. By his junior year, Exon's taste buds were maturing.

He liked playing on a top-ranked team with his friends, but he wondered whether his tennis career would be better served if he spent more time training with his private coach, tennis' equivalent to a club coach.

After discussing the matter with his parents, high school coach and private coach, Exon grudgingly chose his private coaches Mark Kaplan and Syd Ball over his high school team. However, there was nothing new about Exon's decision.

Sunny Hills stars Kevin Kim and Joseph Gilbert each won two section team titles playing high school tennis. Corona del Mar's Taylor Dent won a section individual title as a freshman. But each gave up a spot on his high school team in search of better competition and more intense practice sessions.

Exon said he misses competing with his friends, instead of always competing against them in tournaments. But he doesn't miss the three-hour high school practices or lopsided matches against players who struggled to get the ball over the net.

"There's definitely a lot more freedom in my practices than there was in high school," Exon said. "It's also a lot more of a challenging practice. If I spend an hour with Mark or Syd, I'll get three times more work out of it than I would in a three-hour practice."

Charlie Exon, Chase's father, said that's not necessarily a knock on high school tennis or Joan Willett, Woodbridge's tennis coach.

"Joan is a high school tennis coach, she's not Mark Kaplan," Charlie Exon said. "One guy was on the tour for three or four years and was ranked in the top hundred in the world. She's trying to build team togetherness in her practices and there's nothing wrong with that."

What she wasn't building in those practices was Exon's tennis game, says Kaplan.

"Chase was at that stage where he needed to play tough matches," Kaplan said. "He was growing into his game and he needed to be challenged. That wasn't happening in high school tennis. We've given him a lot more discipline in his practices. If you're trying to build a national player and you're not practicing like a national player would, then you're spinning your wheels."

While he was playing high school tennis, Exon was one of the top players in Southern California. Recently, he has become a top-20 national player. In December, Exon won the Fiesta Bowl tournament in Phoenix. Ten days ago, he won the San Diego junior tournament. This fall, Exon signed a letter of intent to play tennis at Pepperdine, a perennial college tennis power.

"My biggest stroke improvement has been my serve," Exon said. "I'm also playing a lot smarter. I'm setting up the points a lot better."

Charlie Exon said there's no doubt his son's game has improved dramatically over the last year, but he also wonders if his life is as well-rounded.

"It's also nice to be with your buddies and your team on road trips," Charlie Exon said. "Tennis is so dog-eat-dog on the weekends in [junior] tournaments. High school tennis is the one time where the guys are cheering for you. Chase is so much on his own now. He's not really into high school anymore."

The Exon family attempted to work out a compromise last year so Chase could play part-time with the team and still work with his private coaches during the week. But Willett, who was not available for comment for this story, would not go for it.

Last year, Willett said, "High school tennis is a team sport and there has to be a total commitment from all of the players. We just couldn't meet a middle ground. I have to stick by my principles."

Exon said even if Willett were to change her rules this season, he would not play for his school.

"For the two years I played, it was fun," Exon said. "All my friends played and we won CIF my sophomore year. It was a good, pressure situation."

When Woodbridge won the Division I title in 1996, Exon won the clinching match over Palos Verdes Peninsula's Tim Marsh with several hundred fans looking on.

"That match that I won, the person that I beat, it wouldn't have been that good of a win in a junior tournament," Exon said. "But you get a lot more satisfaction and joy because your team won and you helped them do it."

Exon also got a lot more recognition from his peers.

"Our school is pretty good in sports," he said, "And if I had never played high school sports, I would have felt just like one of the other students."

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