A season that began with turbulence ended with jubilation and a few happy tears.
The Riverbank High coed tennis program celebrated its first Sac-Joaquin Section title, completing a Cinderella run with a 5-4 victory over Colfax in the first-ever Division II final.
Coach Bruce Edwards, with his floppy sun cap, is no stranger to the section spotlight. A longtime fixture in the athletic department at Riverbank High, the 70-year-old Edwards is the architect of the Bruins’ decorated cross country program, helping shape the career of German Fernandez, one of the greatest high school runners in California state history.
On the tennis court, though, it's been a trail of heart-breaking defeats and oh-so-close finishes for Edwards’ teams at the section level. Riverbank had been beaten by nine-time section champion Placer in the last two coed finals.
On Tuesday, the battle-tested Bruins finally broke through.
“It really was a Cinderella season,” Edwards said. “We lost to Mountain House and Ripon (in Trans-Valley League play). Lost five players because of jobs, early graduation or they moved. It was getting so discouraging because of the situations that occurred. We were pretty bummed out and figured we were out of it.”
Riverbank's postseason hopes were boosted by Mountain House’s struggles during the stretch run of the TVL season. The Bruins rallied to win league for a third straight season, despite two losses, and clinched the top seed in the Division II tournament.
Fortune continued to smile on the Bruins, who whipped Waterford in the opening round and then caught another lucky break against Argonaut, which played the semifinal match without one of its top players, according to Edwards. Riverbank won, 5-4.
"Everything has been going our way," he said.
In the final, Riverbank won three of the four singles matches and then locked up the title with a hotly-contested victory in girls doubles.
Alex Alfaro, Jesus Aguiniga and Alondra Ibarra notched singles victories.
The Bruins' top doubles tandem of Jackie Pantoja and Carla Ibarra, Alondra's sister, won a contentious match that required line judges, 7-5, 6-4, sealing the match with a baseline winner that wasn't returned.
Edwards credited the players’ commitment to the sport and “the Bruin family,” he says, for delivering a historic victory. Like football and basketball, Riverbank’s tennis program trains year-round, and Edwards believes that level of dedication and hard work helped the Bruins stare down adversity.
“Most every kid on this team hadn’t picked up racket until they joined this program,” said Edwards, who retired from teaching at the high school in 2010. “We work harder than most – two hours a day and every Saturday. I don't tell them they’re going to win, but I do tell them hard work does pay off. In this day and age, that's what it takes.”