By Greg Mellen
In an as-close-as-it-gets CIF-Southern Section Division I Girls Tennis Championship match, Aliso Niguel fought off a championship point in a decisive marathon singles set and had to win its final four matches just to reach a tiebreaker.
After rallying to tie the score at 9-9 in round-robin play, the Wolverines prevailed via winning more games 71-64 at Pomona-Pitzer’s Pauley Tennis Courts.
“You absolutely could not script a match any more exciting and compelling,” wrote Aliso Niguel Head Coach Jeff Pinter.
Los Osos came into the Section finals as the undefeated top seed (14-0) and eager to wipe away the pain from a 10-8 loss to another Capistrano Unified School District team, Tesoro, in the 2022 finals. The Grizzlies, who defeated Aliso Niguel 11-7 in last year’s semifinal, featured essentially the same team, with an added year of seasoning under their belts and title aspirations in their heads.
“It was obvious that it would take a Herculean effort on our part to pull it off,” Pinter said.
Hercules came in the form of senior Ann Kato, who faced Los Osos senior Shukan Parikh in the pivotal match. Undefeated in Baseline League play, Parikh was counted on to take a bite out of Aliso Niguel’s stacked singles lineup.
Los Osos coach GIlbert Delgadillo strategically dropped his other top singles players into doubles in an attempt to sweep there. The gambit nearly worked as Los Osos won eight of nine doubles sets and Aliso Niguel took eight of nine singles sets.
In the second round of single-set singles matches, Aliso’s No. 3, Kato, faced Parikh in a battle that lasted nearly an hour-and-a-half before Kato prevailed 7-6.
As a result, as Kato and Parikh battled on, other matches that started concurrently were wrapped up and players and fans drifted over to observe what was shaping up as the decisive match. By this time, Los Osos had taken a 9-5 lead, leaving no margin for error for Aliso Niguel.
“Most knew the title likely hinged on this one match,” Pinter wrote of the importance. “It turned out to be epic! EVERYONE gathered to watch: players, coaches, parents, and a huge throng of Los Osos students that made the trip.”
Kato fell behind 4-1 early before rallying to take the set to a tiebreaker. In the latter stages of the set, fatigue settled in as both players repeatedly stretched and massaged their legs to stave off cramping.
Parikh took a 6-5 lead in the tiebreak and was serving for the championship. After a long 15-20-shot point, with both players challenging each other with deep top-spin shots and sharply angled crosscourt volleys, Kato outlasted Parikh.
After the point, the Grizzly star clearly came out worse for wear and worked hard to massage out the leg cramps. Kato was then able to close out the match in straight points.
Describing the scene, Pinter wrote, “Literally hundreds of spectators glued to the match and living and dying on every point. LOTS of hooting and hollering.”
Strong outings top to bottom
Even with Kato’s dramatic win, Aliso Niguel still needed to win the remaining three matches and make up a 10-game deficit. Buoyed by the victory, the Wolverines pulled ahead in dominating fashion and won the total games tally going away.
Equally pivotal as Kato’s win was a victory by the Wolverines’ No. 3 doubles team to salvage a point. Sophia Milenkovich and Jessica Chiu played what Pinter said was “the match of their life,” to beat Los Osos’ No. 3 team of Alexis Vo and Jidean Millan 6-3.
Aliso Niguel’s No. 1 singles standout, junior four-star recruit Olivia Allegre, won her three matches losing only one game in the process. In addition to the victory over Parikh, Kato won two sets without dropping a game. Senior Sonia Mangat recovered from a 6-3 loss in the first round to Parikh, to win her final two sets without dropping a game.
Despite facing Los Osos’ stacked doubles teams, Aliso Niguel duos Katelyn Bethard and Mia Johnson and Ai Kato and Miah Zhou, kept their matches competitive to allow Aliso Niguel to pile up tiebreaker points. The Wolverines finished the season 16-3 overall but, most important, 15-0 in the stretch.
To reach the finals, Aliso Niguel had to overcome Huntington Beach, the No. 3 seed, and No. 2 Fountain Valley in the semifinals.
At the team banquet after the season, Pinter said he asked Ann Kato if she had any doubts when she fell behind 4-1. Her answer? “None.”
“That pretty much sums up all you need to know about Ann,” Pinter wrote.
And Aliso Niguel overall, it would seem.