It has been nearly 30 years since Christy Perez won the last of her four Sac-Joaquin Section singles championships at Central Catholic.
Still, she connects with today’s high school tennis players because, well, the will to win persists.
Everything about the sport of tennis has changed. The equipment has evolved. So, too, have the athletes. They’re faster and stronger than Perez remembers. But that competitive gene remains, as if preserved by a time capsule.
In that respect, the Central Catholic Raiders of today are no different than the Raiders of 1984-87, when Christy Pohl won four consecutive Division II section singles titles.
“We’re all competitive and we want to do what we did last year because it was so special,” said senior Amie Ardis, one of two returning pieces from last fall’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division III title team. “I don’t think there’s outside pressure, but there is (pressure) amongst us, personally. We push each other every day and we’re all very into it.”
Central Catholic won its first section team title since 1986, rallying to defeat Bear River 5-4 in the Division III final. The Raiders started their postseason push by winning the Valley Oak League and haven’t lost a league match since 2013, when they were in the Western Athletic Conference.
“Last year’s team, we had five graduating seniors, which left a big void for this year. Some really big shoes,” said Perez, in her third year at the helm. “They were just a unique group of girls that had drive and wanted to win it.”
The Raiders look the part of a title contender again, despite the heavy turnover. Perez returned two seniors – Ardis and No. 4 singles player Rosella Rangel – and has filled slots with a group of mostly new faces and newcomers to the sport. Freshman Anna Ballatore has solidified the No. 2 singles position, while Perez has mixed and matched the rest of her lineup with a maestro’s touch.
“I wasn’t sure how this year would filter out. I set a goal but also knew this could be a rebuilding year,” Perez said. “The ones that played last year, I think they got a taste of how it felt to be the champions.”
The Raiders sit atop the VOL standings at the halfway point, but they’re not completely comfortable. Manteca, which won the 2013 title, pushed Central Catholic in a 6-3 Raiders win to start the season. The Buffaloes trailed 4-0 early but rattled the Raiders by taking the first set in four other matches. The two meet again Thursday at the Sportsmen of Stanislaus Club.
The former singles champion learned a lot about her new-look lineup that day. These Raiders, though young and unproven, thrive under pressure.
“Our backs were against the wall,” Perez said. “I’ve preached and taught that when things aren’t working, you have to find ways to win. We beat Manteca, but on that day, it really could have gone either way. My girls just wanted it more.”
The play-every-point principle has been established by Perez, but the tone is set by Ardis and Rangel, the Raiders’ emotional leaders.
Ardis is technically sound and hard-wired to be a champion, while Rangel’s tenacity is proven. It was her gutsy performance that swung the D-III final in Central Catholic’s favor. The Raiders trailed 4-1, and the match hung on Rangel’s match. She won 7-4, 6-3, and Central never looked back.
“I spoke with them at the beginning of the year and said, ‘You’re going to be my leaders and my expectations are high,’ ” Perez said. “If we’re practicing, they need to up their practice so the others can see how hard they’re working.
“They’ve embraced the role and they told the girls, ‘We don’t lose.’ They don’t want to walk off the court until they’ve exhausted all options.”