The Los Gatos High girls tennis team rebounded from a tough 2021 season to win the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League’s El Camino Division championship last year.
Having been promoted to the upper De Anza Division this season, the Wildcats know their task for an upper-tier finish will be considerably tougher. After all, the De Anza is arguably the best girls tennis league in the Central Coast Section, boasting last year’s championship finalists—Monta Vista and Cupertino—as members. However, Los Gatos coach Justin Stenger said the team is up for the challenge.
“I’m confident the girls will rise to the challenge, I am,” he said. “The El Camino is competitive, the De Anza is a different monster, we know that. We’re focusing on one match at a time and improving every time we get out on the court.”
Los Gatos has a bona-fide ace at the top of the singles lineup in sophomore Kayla Mitchell, who earned the No. 4 seed in last year’s CCS singles tournament but fell in her opening match. As someone who plays year-round, Mitchell comes back having improved her array of skills.
“Kayla is just an outstanding talent,” Stenger said. “She has all the shots and best of all she doesn’t have any fear—she’ll take on anybody. Kayla has a great attitude, a positive attitude at all times and really embodies—and it might be cliche but very important—what all tennis coaches preach about. It’s the next ball and whatever happened on the last point, erase it and just get to and focus on the next point. And she’s just really fun to watch.”
The Wildcats also have a strong player at the No. 2 singles slot in junior co-captain Yasmina Ikkawi, a returning standout. Stenger said Ikkawi possesses powerful groundstrokes and likes to finish things fast.
“Which is fun,” he said. “I really enjoy watching Yasmina play because it’s high-risk, high-reward.”
Sophomore Valeriya Marinicheva plays No. 3 singles and has a solid game that should result in multiple victories this season, while senior Natalia Figueroa will be part of a rotation of players who will see time at the No. 4 singles position.
Co-captain Nitya Jhamb and sophomore Kaley Do had what Stenger called “the match of the day” when they won their No. 1 doubles match in the team’s season-opening 5-2 loss to St. Francis on Sept. 6.
“They’re a real bright spot for us and played really fantastic tennis which ended in a 10-point tiebreaker,” Stenger said.
Sisters Zoe and Maya Swanson played No. 2 doubles vs. St. Francis and will be big contributors this season, Stenger said. Zoe is a senior and Maya a sophomore, and not surprisingly they display tremendous chemistry on the court.
Sophomore Anya Chauhan and junior Yilin Fang played No. 3 doubles vs. St. Francis and going forward Stenger said assembling the best doubles teams and giving the team the best lineup to win is on him.
“It’s up to me to find the right combinations, the right pairings, the right spots for all of them,” he said. “That’s what we’re working on now. I’m going to put them in the right position to be successful, and I hope what we’re doing in practice is harder than what they see on Tuesdays and Thursdays [in league matches].”
Junior Kiana Behnami filled in at the No. 3 singles spot vs. St. Francis, and Stenger said he admires her mental grit and mindset.
“She brings an attitude to our team, a toughness, an aggressiveness that I like all of our players to play with,” Stenger said. “She will step up and play wherever is asked of her.”
Seniors Eesha Chugh, Sophia Cuevas and Cameron Onufer also are on the roster and fill valuable roles, giving the team depth and quality of play. Stenger is back coaching at Los Gatos after a brief two-year stint as a teacher and coach at Mountain View High.
He last coached the girls and boys tennis teams at Los Gatos in the Covid-shortened spring 2021 season. Now that Stenger has returned, he is as energized as ever to see young student-athletes achieve their potential, on and off the court.
“It took me two years being away from this place to realize how special it truly is,” he said. “The school, the town, the people.”
Stenger feels particularly grateful he gets to coach seniors like Jhamb, Chugh and Figueroa, who were freshmen when he last coached the team in the 2020-2021 school year.
“To see them now as seniors and see the growth they’ve made, not just as tennis players but as people, is just crazy,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how much they grow and change in a few years.”