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Saints Alive! Santa Ana Unbeaten

May 16, 2000|DAVE McKIBBEN

It is the county's most unknown and unlikely undefeated tennis team.

Santa Ana High, on the verge of disbanding its program five years ago, enters today's first-round Southern Section playoff match against Irvine with a sparkling 20-0 record.

Granted, the sparkle could fade today when the Saints face their toughest opponent of the season--Irvine (10-8)--in the first round of the Division I playoffs. But that doesn't diminish what Coach Bill Miller and his nine players have accomplished.

Santa Ana finished the regular season unbeaten for the first time since 1960 and won its first league title in 18 years. In 1995, the Saints were winless. This season, their closest match was an 11-7 victory over Saddleback.

"God is looking over us," Miller said. "I've had very little to do with it."

His players say otherwise.

If not for Miller's infectious enthusiasm and salesmanship, players such as junior Oscar Sanchez and seniors Gilbert Teran and Said Chio might have never discovered a sport they have come to love.

"He's always encouraged us," said Teran, the team's No. 1 singles player who had never picked up a racket until his freshman year. "He's always been there for us, in the summer, after school, wherever we needed him."

The program needed him badly in 1995 when the varsity roster was down to six players and there was no junior varsity program.

"I was begging kids to play, advertising in my classroom," Miller said. "I was telling players to bring a friend to practice."

That strategy worked with Sanchez, who started coming to practices with his friend Chio.

"Coach Miller saw me serving one day and he invited me to try it," said Sanchez, a point guard on the basketball team until he became hooked on tennis. "I liked it right away."

Fourteen months later, Sanchez and Oscar Bahena have become the second-best doubles team in the Golden West League. Sanchez and Bahena, who went 33-3 in dual matches, lost in the league finals to Chio and Thein Ngo, who were 35-1.

Sanchez is also trying to bring dedication to the classroom. Since becoming a tennis player, he has improved his 1.6 grade-point average to 2.5.

"Tennis has given Oscar a reason to become a good student," Miller said.

When Miller's players aren't studying, it's a good bet they are playing tennis. After practice, most of Miller's players stay around and play sets against each other for an hour. On weekends, most of the players can usually be found at the Cabrillo Park courts.

The improvement has been slow, but steady. In 1997, the team won five games. The next year, the Saints won 10 and qualified for the playoffs. Last year, they won 14 and finished second in league.

All this has happened at a school that tends to be passionate about soccer and apathetic at best about tennis.

Sanchez said his father "always wanted me to play soccer, but I never liked it. Now that I'm playing tennis, he's supporting me. He even came out to watch one of my matches."

Which is more than the student body or faculty has done. Despite their perfect record, the Saints have not exactly turned on the campus.

"We might get a parent, maybe a couple students or a few teachers, but we're not getting a whole lot of support," Miller said.

Chio, a four-year starter along with Teran and No. 2 singles player Tony Garcia, said it would be nice to get some recognition: "You kind of get jealous. All these other sports don't have nearly as good a record, but they get a lot more people. We go undefeated and nobody comes."

Miller's fear is that his team will finally draw a crowd and then lose.

"It gets pretty tough now," Miller said. "Irvine is in what I call the tennis belt of Orange County. I'm sure if they played our schedule they'd be 20-0 too."

If Santa Ana can get by Irvine, it would play second-seeded Corona del Mar--the defending Division I champion.

Said Sanchez: "Anything we do from here on out is a bonus. We've accomplished our main goal. Now all we can do is have fun and play hard."

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