In most sports at the prep level, the top athletes and college prospects play for their high school.
Tennis happens to be one of those sports where it’s hit and miss, depending on the player. For Wildcats’ sophomore ace Kayla Mitchell, playing in high school gives her a special enjoyment and fulfillment that differs from playing in the more competitive United States Tennis Association (USTA) tournaments.
Ranked in the top 20 in Northern California and top 200 nationally in the U16 age division, Mitchell travels out of the area almost every weekend for USTA tournaments. It can be a grind at times, which is why Los Gatos’ No. 1 player enjoys the high school experience.
“I love playing on the team because it’s a family and tennis is so individual,” she said. “I really like that I get this opportunity because sometimes USTA tournaments are really stressful. This is good competition, but also your friends are here and you can support each other.”
Mitchell had a thrill teaming up with fellow sophomore Anya Chauhan to play No. 1 doubles in the team’s 6-1 win over Los Altos High on Oct. 5, a victory that improved the Wildcats’ record to 5-2 in the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League De Anza Division, the top league in the Central Coast Section for girls tennis.
Mitchell and Chauhan won in riveting fashion, rallying from an 8-5 deficit to take the deciding 10-point super tiebreaker, 10-8.
“It was fun playing with Anya and I really enjoyed it,” Mitchell said. “That was my first time playing doubles with the team, actually, and I had a really great time.”
Los Gatos is proving formidable again coming off a season in which it won the SCVAL El Camino Division championship and advanced to the CCS tournament quarterfinals as the No. 8 seed, losing to eventual runner-up Cupertino High, 5-2.
In the CCS individual singles tournament, Mitchell earned one of the top four seeds but lost her opening match. Los Gatos has made a nice transition stepping up to the top-tier De Anza Division this season. Mitchell aims to excel once again in the upcoming CCS team and individual tournaments.
“I’m going to try to do well for the team and hopefully we can make CCS again and go through a couple more rounds,” Mitchell said. “I know a lot of [top] seniors graduated last year, so the draw’s a little more open this year, so we’ll see. If I don’t do great, I won’t take it to heart. I’m just going to get back out and do better next season.”
Wildcats coach Justin Stenger knew Mitchell was a special player before she even arrived at Los Gatos High. His first stint as the girls and boys coach came in the spring of 2021, when Kayla was a seventh-grader and her older brother Matt was a freshman playing on the Los Gatos boys team.
“Kayla would be there with her mom supporting Matt,” Stenger said. “A lot of times I was up there with them and the other parents. Kayla wasn’t just watching her brother but all seven courts like a coach. And you could see it then she wanted to be out there competing against the boys.”
Similar to many of the top youth players in the current generation, Mitchell possesses heavy topspin-laden shots off both her forehand and backhand wings, to go along with a potent serve. She’s able to generate tremendous racket head speed and hit laser-like winners from just about anywhere on the court.
But Stenger said what separates Mitchell—aside from the talent—is her genuine love and passion for the game which manifests in how she competes, whether in practice or in matches.
“It’s rare to see a kid who loves a sport as much as she loves tennis,” Stenger said. “She loves the chance to play for Los Gatos and represent this town.”
Because USTA tournaments are in locations throughout the country, Mitchell has had the opportunity to travel by her estimation to 10 different states, including Michigan and Florida.
“It’s crazy the number of places I’ve been able to go to, and I’m grateful for that,” she said.
Mitchell started playing tennis at 3 or 4 but also started playing softball at an early age, eventually competing for a competitive travel ball team. Mitchell loved both sports but at age 10 decided to focus squarely on tennis and hasn’t looked back since.
“I had to kind of make a choice, to pick one and see where I could go with it,” she said. “I never imagined I would be in a spot where I could potentially commit somewhere with tennis. I never thought about that at the time. I thought it was the better sport for me and then decided to take it seriously and I improved a lot. At age 10, I got a new coach and he was really motivating and opened my eyes to all these things I didn’t even know I could do.”
Tennis runs in the Mitchell family, as her parents play in leagues at Bay Club Courtside. Kayla and Matt—who as a junior was No. 2 singles on the boys team last year—started playing the sport around the same time and still train together. Matt even serves as Kayla’s warm-up partner in many of her tournaments.
“I enjoy hitting with him and we’re pretty competitive,” she said. “I’m very grateful to have my brother as a hitting partner and it makes for good practice and helps me improve.”