San Benito High School tennis team returns to the court

After a year-long shutdown, players look forward to a brief season.

The season may be truncated and the competition may be sparse, but the coaches and players on the San Benito High School tennis team are happy just to be out on the courts again. The athletes were given permission to start practice again on Feb. 22, but delays caused by COVID-19 restrictions have left the teams with little to do, and little time to do it.

Coach Rick Espino said his team is having a hard time finding anyone to play against.

“For the boys team, we are just doing practice,” he said. “There aren’t any schools that have many boys to bring in to play. Usually we have 10 boys we bring to the matches. We have a match coming up with Palma and they are bringing four boys. We played Gilroy and we took three boys. So our biggest obstacle is in finding teams that are practicing and playing.”

Rick Espino. Photo by Robert Eliason
Rick Espino. Photo by Robert Eliason

Last year, the girls team was able to complete their season, but the boys were halfway through and leading in the league championship when their season was shut down by the pandemic. Now they are able to compete, and need to maintain social distancing, wear masks and use disinfectant. But to Espino, the safety measures are less of an obstacle than actually setting up meets.

“Some schools decided not to have teams this year,” he said. “York, for example, does not have a team. Other schools are just playing in their districts and some are not leaving their county.” 

Getting San Benito High School students to participate is a problem itself.

“A lot of kids are distance learning so they don’t go into school,” Espino said. “Some parents don’t want their kids competing in sports right now. Another challenge is that all of the sports are being played out in the spring rather than over the normal seasons of the year. So boys who play another sport but play tennis in the fall now have to choose between tennis and football, or tennis and baseball. You can’t do more than one.”

Despite that, Espino has still managed to find 11 boys for his team, close to the normal turnout of 13 players. The girls team, under coach Ed Cecena, has managed to sign up 21 players out of their usual 32. But they are still ready to take on all challengers—wherever they can be found.

“We were able to prepare for five weeks while other schools might have been just getting organized,” Cecena said. “Even during the summer conditioning, we had a bigger turnout than most schools. We did a lot of conditioning before we were allowed to hit a tennis ball. Overall we are anxious to play.”

Opponents have been few and far between.  So far the girls team has had only two matches with five more scheduled. Prospects are good for at least four of the seven being against teams with full rosters of players. The boys team has played three matches, also with five more scheduled, but they have not had any against a team with a full roster.

The lower turnout and short practice period have been challenging to deal with, but Cecena keeps that in perspective as he looks to next year.

“It has been quite an adjustment,” he said. “I am really happy with how we are doing, but we did lose some of our better athletes this year to track and field. Of course, the athletes are happy to be out on the courts and we appreciate their enthusiasm. And we have a lot of freshmen and sophomores, which will be very beneficial for the next couple years. We are developing these young athletes and if they hang in there we will have some pretty decent tennis players.”

Ed Cecena. Photo by Robert Eliason
Ed Cecena. Photo by Robert Eliason

The top-ranked players on the San Benito High School tennis team this year are returning juniors Hugh Nguyen and Carmela Clark. Nguyen was 6-0 last year when all scheduled meets for his team were halted.

“We had a really strong team last year and I was hoping we would make it to the Central Coast championships,” Nguyen said. “We were undefeated as a team and we lost some good players this year. I didn’t know if we were going to be able to bounce back.”

Though he comes from a tennis-playing family—he learned from his father, who plays at Ridgemark—Nguyen found it a little difficult to get back to peak performance this year.

“I was a little rusty,” he said. “We were not allowed to play anywhere. I just stayed at home and kept exercising. But I have been working at playing and got back into the groove again. I picked up some new skills before the season started. I think, for myself, I will be able to do well next year because I have been learning a lot since I started on the team in my freshman year.”

Clark has been playing tennis since she was six years old and, unlike many of her teammates, was able to continue practicing after the school courts were shut down.

“I play with a group of men out at Ridgemark, so I was able to keep playing when a lot of my teammates couldn’t,” she said. “I had a lot more time to work on my game before they shut those courts down, too.”

While Clark was able to get in more court time than some other players, the shutdown and the staged reopening has thrown her game off a bit.

Carmela Clark. Photo by Robert Eliason
Carmela Clark. Photo by Robert Eliason

“I miss the level of competition this year,” she said. “Always before I was very competitive going into matches, but this year I am in a different state of mind. I go out there now and I make a lot of errors, so I am working on becoming a bit more cutthroat as far as my playing.”

But Clark maintains enthusiasm for the game.

“Coming back for this season, it’s not the same as it was before. But I am just grateful to be out here with my teammates, getting sort of a high school experience during this weird time.”


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.