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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

It's Friendship Over Courtship

April 01, 2001|ERIC SONDHEIMER

In an era when students routinely choose high schools based on sports programs, Russell Mullin made a stunning request to his mother in September.

Throughout the summer, Mullin, a freshman tennis player, went back and forth trying to decide what high school to attend.

Would he choose Thousand Oaks, a Marmonte League tennis power and the school his brother and sister attended?

Or would he pick Newbury Park, the weakest tennis school in the Marmonte League but where his best friends were going?

Mullin, 15, is teaching everyone that friendships can be more important than championships.

Convincing his mother to let him attend Newbury Park wasn't easy. She favored Thousand Oaks.

"It was sort of a wearing-down process," Jolyn Mullin said. "His friends are pretty important to him, especially because his dad passed away. I finally decided it was more important to be with good friends that could help him along the way."

These aren't just any friends, they are the buddies Mullin has hung out with since he was an infant. They attend the same church and wake up at 6 a.m. for an hour of seminary classes each morning.

Mullin and sophomores Randy Meru, Shem Hanaman, Adam Pollack, Tyler Despain and Jordan Johnson are trying to become Eagle Scouts.

"We've been friends all our life," Mullin said.

None of his best friends play tennis. They're basketball, baseball and soccer players. But they know how good a tennis player Mullin is. He can play left-handed against them and win. He can close his eyes after one of his powerful serves and not worry about the ball being returned. He's ranked No. 61 in Southern California for his age group.

"If you just met him on the street, you wouldn't know he's a good tennis player," Meru said. "But when you see him, he's amazing."

His friends expected him to choose Thousand Oaks. That's what they would have done. Thousand Oaks has Phillip Sheng and Andrew Lieu, two of the top players in Southern California. Lieu was the doubles partner of Mullin's brother, Willie.

His friends understood Mullin had the chance to make Thousand Oaks a contender for the Southern Section Division II title. Newbury Park was a contender for last place.

"I kind of wanted him to go to Thousand Oaks for his tennis," Meru said. "But I also wanted him to be with his friends."

Mullin's friends filled a critical void in his life two summers ago when his father, Tom, died of cancer.

Tom played tennis in college and was Russell's mentor.

"It was pretty tough," Mullin said. "He had cancer for five years. He taught me how to play tennis and would have wanted me to go to T.O."

But after Tom's death, the power of friendship helped heal Mullin's wounds.

"Every day, over that summer, we were with him," Pollack said.

Someone would call to play golf or go swimming. Mullin kept his thoughts about his father's death to himself, but his friends refused to let him be alone.

Pollack took him on a family vacation to Utah and then to the Grand Canyon.

"We're doing things he would have done with his dad," Pollack said.

When a friend is in need, it's up to a friend to help. That's what Mullin's friends did, and he has never forgotten.

So when the time came to decide what high school to attend, Mullin's choice became clear.

"I decided about a week before school started I wanted to be with my friends and my friends were more important than my tennis," he said.

Jolyn approved the decision even though she admits, "His father is probably turning in his grave. After four months of wearing me down, I said, 'OK.' "

Newbury Park is winless in league matches, but Mullin is 23-3 with victories over top players from Thousand Oaks and Westlake.

He's not going to play on a championship team this year, but he likes his school, respects his teammates and most of all, appreciates his friends.

Mullin's decision has made an impression on others.

"It's a cool thing that somebody can give up playing on a real good team for friendship," Meru said.

*

Eric Sondheimer's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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