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PREP EXTRA / A weekly look at the high school sports
scene in the Southland

Public Ambitions

Sandlot Players Find Success in Sport Dominated by Privately Coached Talent


Katie Mayberry of Brea Olinda High has a warning for tennis purists: Don't judge her game by the beauty of her strokes.

"I don't have a good forehand, a good backhand or much of a serve," Mayberry said, "I'm short [5 feet 2]. I don't look all that scary. When we warm up and they see my serve, her coach will usually say, 'Well, we've got this one.' "

But often Mayberry's more experienced opponent--the one with the textbook groundstrokes--will leave the court muttering to herself and her bewildered coach.

"Somehow, the score usually seems to go my way," Mayberry said.

Score one for the sandlot tennis player.

Unlike baseball, basketball or football, tennis has never been much of a sandlot game. Most of the professional and highly ranked junior players started young and honed their games at country clubs, academies or their backyards, and most were helped along by private coaches or dedicated parents.

The club player and the self-taught or sandlot player use essentially the same equipment and the same rules, but they typically don't play the same game.

William Lou, girls' coach at Garden Grove High, said he can identify a club player within seconds.

"These girls' footwork is impeccable," Lou said. "Their groundstrokes are beautiful. They live and breathe tennis. They have that country-club training."

But Mayberry and Westchester's Cynthia Rosales are among the girls' tennis players throughout the Southland who are proof that not every successful player takes the conventional path. Few, if any, players like Mayberry or Rosales are threats to win City or Southern Section individual singles titles, but dozens manage to earn all-league honors despite staying outside the mainstream of the tennis culture.

The sandlot player rarely has picked up a racket until age 14. Few belong to tennis clubs or pay for private lessons, and many are introduced to the sport during summer tennis programs at a local park or their high school.

Corona del Mar Coach Tim Mang, whose girls' team won the Southern Section Division I title last year with an entire roster of players taking private lessons, knows what the sandlot player is up against.

"It's tough these days for the kid who doesn't get private instruction," Mang said. "You can still become a good player, but you have to have one hell of a high school coach who's able to donate a lot of time. You also have to be a great athlete."

Or, at the very least, have the desire to become one.

"Some kids who don't have any real tournament experience come in, make the team and have the same work ethic as the players that are already very good," said Bud Kling, who has coached Palisades to 12 City titles in girls' tennis in 15 years. "Their attitude is: 'This is what it takes to become good.' The others already have that attitude and that is why they are good."

Rosales, a senior, adopted that can-do attitude when she went out for the tennis team at Westchester as a freshman. Like almost all of the girls at the tryout, Rosales had played little recreational tennis. Her tournament experience consisted of watching matches from Wimbledon and the U.S. Open on television.

"I had played a little bit for fun with my mom," Rosales said. "But I really didn't have any skills.

"I remember at the start of practice, the balls I hit were flying everywhere. But as the months and years went by, I kept working and working and my skills got better."

Rosales made the varsity as a freshman and has been a doubles mainstay for the Comets, who are expected to challenge Fairfax and Palisades for this year's City title.

"Only a few of our players have played in ranking tournaments," Westchester Coach Sean Hanagan said. "So the challenge is to improve the other players' skills to the point that when they go up against the tournament girls, they might not be able to beat them, but as a team we come out pretty successful because we do it together."

Mayberry said her heart often goes out to the heavily favored, well-schooled opponents she beats.

"These girls have a lot of pressure to win from their parents," Mayberry said. "The parents think, 'We've spent all this money on you. You have to win.' "

Mayberry can defeat some of her opponents with a pesky approach, but she also takes her lumps.

"There are days when I see that I could use some help, especially on my serve," she said. "It's so awful in comparison to my opponents. The girls who have coaches even have good second serves. I'd settle for a good first serve."

Mayberry tried to improve her serve. Her parents briefly hired a serving coach and they later asked if she wanted a full-time coach. Mayberry declined.

"I decided I would divide my time into other things," said Mayberry, who has a 4.67 grade-point average and is editor of the school newspaper. "We pretty much decided that tennis would be my fun in high school."

Rosales takes a similar approach.

"I'm doing the best I can and the experience I'm getting in tennis helps me know I'm going to succeed in life," Rosales said. "I'm just thrilled that I got so encouraged to play on the team and have become as advanced as I have."

Rosales, Mayberry and other sandlot players who improve throughout their high school years are examples of a teaching system that works, Hanagan said.

"The most satisfying thing you can do as a coach is to take a kid who has not been a tournament-type player and at the end of the their career, they look at you and say, 'Thank you very much for all of your help. I've really had a great time,' " he said.

"That's what high school sports are all about."


Staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this story.

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