LA has a lot of new faces heading into 2009 season

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By Mike Cote

If fans of Los Alamos girls tennis want to see fireworks this season, they might want to wait until the end of the month to catch the team in action.

For those fans that want to see the progression of the team from the start of the season to the finish, that will get going in earnest Saturday.

The Hilltopper girls, who won their second straight state Class AAAA title in 2008, are getting their season rolling in earnest at Rio Rancho Saturday morning. The Hilltoppers opened their season Feb. 13 at a tournament in El Paso, Texas, but will be in action on a regular basis between now and mid-May.

Los Alamos suffered some heavy losses to graduation after the 2008 season, including losing No. 1 single Jeena Kim and program veterans Emma Myers and Elise Jalbert.

To replace those players, Los Alamos will have a large corps of younger players stepping into varsity competition, while returning seniors Grace Kim and Megan Townsley and returning junior Brenna O’Hara are being asked to step into leadership roles.

Because there are so many new faces around the team — including three eighth-graders who will be pushing for varsity matches — Townsley said she’s expecting a period of adjustment before things get rolling.

“It will be nice to see the team come together,” she said. “We don’t know a lot of the girls. It will be nice if we get to know everybody well.”

The Hilltoppers’ veteran head coach Bruce Cottrell agrees that it might take some time, so he’s not putting a whole lot of stock into the team’s early season contests.

Entering his 17th season with the team, he won’t start worrying much about the team’s results until March 27 at the Española Valley Quadrangular which will be played this year in Taos. (Española Valley had some of the better courts around for many seasons,  but they have fallen into disrepair in recent years.) That turnament will feature the Taos Tigers, a possible AAAA dark horse this season, and the Farmington Scorpions, whom Cottrell feels is the favorite going into 2009.

“We have a very athletic team and we have a very competitive team,” he said. “A lot of our girls like to go out there and compete. I think this year’s team is going to improve as much as any team I’ve ever had between March 1 and May 1.”

The key in the early season, Cottrell said, is for his younger players to gain not only experience, but confidence. While he believes his players can beat most competition by playing conservative tennis, they will have to hit tougher shots and take chances to knock off teams like Farmington.

The Scorpions, whom the Hilltoppers battled to a very close 5-2 win the state team tournament finals, have a potent top four in singles play and could have duals all but closed out before the doubles competition even start.

Also returning is Erin Dinehart, a junior, who came on late in 2008, as well as juniors Beth Wendelberger and Sarah Worland.

Newcomers include seniors Heather Walters and Jaime Benage, who are switching up from spring club soccer to tennis this season.

Benage has already made her mark in the annals of team history, being one of the first three players in history to beat Cottrell’s challenge of predicting the men’s and women’s winners in the Australian Open. Cottrell had never lost his challenge until this season, with the winners earning new rackets courtesy of the coach.

The big date for Los Alamos before the 2AAAA tournament in May is April 10, the start of the Albuquerque Academy Invitational. At that tournament, many of the top teams in AAAA will be participating and as such, the tournament could be crucial to seeding for the state tournament.