Last Friday was girls tennis coach Sean Passan's birthday and to celebrate, his players lavished him with gifts—a big balloon, a frosted cake, brownies, cookies and pizza. However, the best present they gave him was a 7-0 triumph over Narbonne in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
After her teammates had gift-wrapped the win by dropping a combined seven games in 12 sets, freshman Diana Silvers placed the bow on top by surviving a battle of attrition at the No. 1 singles spot, holding off senior Neda Boni, 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, to keep the Gauchos off the scoresheet at the .
"It was a great birthday present," Passan said, grinning ear to ear. "This is the first time in a while that we've played our varsity team in full force. What a great way to start the playoffs for us."
Silvers' win took two and a half hours and line judges had to be called to the court midway through the first set. By the end, with all other matches concluded, teammates from both schools lined the fences and shouted encouragement to their player after every point. Even though the overall winner had already been decided, Silvers was determined to send a message to future opponents.
"You don't want other teams saying 'Yeah, Pali won but their No. 1 player isn't that strong," Silvers said. "The whole team did great and I didn't want to be the one to lose. You have to expect playing No. 1 in the playoffs that the girls are going to be solid players."
The second-seeded Dolphins set the tone from the start of the first to seven points head-to-head format. Continuing their dominance at No. 1 doubles were senior Perri Zaret and sophomore Julie Takakjian, who scored a 6-2, 6-0 victory. They have won all 10 sets they have played together this season, taking 70 of 75 games in the process.
"My serve was really on today," said Zaret, one of Palisades' captains. "I didn't know either of them, but they were good at the net. I don't ever worry about Julie, I can always count on her. I love playing first—especially if it's a close match—so after it's over I can cheer on everyone else."
Zaret prefers playing two out of three sets instead of just one eight-game pro set, as is customary in the regular season. She was hoping Palisades would face Western League runner-up Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies a third time, having already defeated the Unicorns twice by 6-1 counts, but the 10th-seeded Gauchos stunned No. 7 LACES 4-3 in the first round Wednesday.
"I wanted to play LACES again because it was more of a sure win, but this showed us what we can do against a new team and I'm so proud of everyone," said Zaret, who served a basket of balls the night before in preparation for Friday's match. "Two out of three sets is more legit and it's what you normally play in tennis, but I wish it was round robin for playoffs, where everyone plays each other."
Takakjian pointed to compatibility as the key to the pair's success.
"Perri's awesome to play with and she's left-handed, which throws people off," said Takakjian, who duplicated what her older sister and former Dolphin Katie (now a freshman at UCLA) did last season when she went unbeaten in league with doubles partner Charlotte Farrant. "During warm-up we see what they're doing, we talk about their serves and we form a strategy."
Prevailing by identical 6-0, 6-2 scores were Palisades' No. 2 and No. 3 doubles tandems. Junior Katie Pfannkuche and freshman Jesse Zand continued to gel at the No. 2 spot, beating Narbonne's Patricia Arabit and Grace Arce. Pfannkuche said she and Zand "are coming into their own" and it has shown in their recent results between the lines.
Zand is motivated to win City for the three seniors, describing them as the "heart of the team."
"It comes down to supporting each other and reaching a common goal," Zand said. "I want to do it for them (the seniors) because they've given so much to the team. I like that aspect of high school tennis. Winning for your team is the ultimate high. You don't get that in [USTA] tournaments."
Zand embraces every chance to test herself against different opposition as well.
"I love playing people I don't know," she said. "The joy of tennis is discovering your game and their game shot by shot."
Senior co-captain Emily Wettleson teamed with junior Melody Wilkenfeld for a win at No. 3 doubles.
"We had a good day today," Wettleson said. "We see what their weaknesses are and play to those. Melody has good crosscourt angles and we're most effective when we're split up. I try to poach but I don't force it."
Wilkenfeld, who played mostly with Pfannkuche last season, would rather play pro sets like in regular season matches, but she has nothing but praise for her partner.
"I think the reason it works is because we're opposites," Wilkenfeld said. "Our games complement each other. My strength is my groundstrokes and Emily is good at volleying."
As dominating as the Dolphins were in doubles, they looked even more impressive in the first three singles matches, surrendering one game in six sets. No one was more dialed in Friday than Jessie Corneli, who served three aces in the first game on her way to a 6-0, 6-0 victory at the No. 3 spot.
Corneli is a St. Louis Cardinals fan and one night after the Redbirds came from behind to beat Texas in Game 6 of the World Series, she moved her own team one point closer to another best-of-seven win—only hers was far less dramatic. The Dolphins senior has not only won 14 straight sets, she has won 52 games in a row dating back to an 8-1 triumph on Oct. 15 at Westchester.
"I feel like I have to win not only for my dignity but to help my team," Corneli said. "Winning takes the pressure off everyone else so they don't feel we're doomed if they lose. Even when I was a freshman, I've always tried to be the player to provide that safety."
Corneli was also happy the team won for her coach of four years yet again on his birthday: "We always play on [Coach] Passan's birthday, but usually it's a league match so this is extra special."
Also winning 6-0, 6-0 was freshman Izzy Guterson, who has made the most of her opportunities on varsity. Her reliable play at No. 4 solidifies the lineup from top to bottom.
"I felt really honored that [Coach] Passan selected me to play today," Guterson said. "I was a little nervous at first but I felt better once we started rallying. I tried to hit more winners on my return and take more chances. I like this format more because it allows you time to get into the match."
Sophomore Katie Vincent had an uneventful match at No. 2 singles, supported by younger siblings Derek and Caroline, also strong junior players in their respective age divisions. Vincent has played through shoulder pain all season and it flared up again at 5-0 in the second set. It wasn't enough to keep her from serving, however, and Vincent swiftly closed out the match.
"It's nothing I haven't dealt with before, so I'll be fine," Vincent said. "I'm glad we didn't play LACES. It's not like that would've made it any more competitive."
Silvers easily won the first set against Boni, who played with Corneli growing up in the Safe Passage Tennis Program founded by the late Arthur Ashe, winner of the 1975 Wimbledon men's singles crown. However, the Gauchos' top player overcame a 5-4 deficit in the second set to win the tiebreaker 7-2 and level the match at one set apiece.
"I was hitting the ball harder and she would just block it back," said Silvers, who was looking forward to a Level 5 junior tournament in Pasadena the next day. "I lost my concentration for a stretch but I calmed down in between the second and third sets. We kept breaking each other but I finally held at the end, which was great because serving for the match is one of the scariest things to do. It was good having to face some adversity and pull through. Hopefully it's something that'll help me in the Individual tournament too."
The Dolphins host sixth-seeded Cleveland in the semifinals at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Rec Center. The Cavaliers (12-3), who finished second behind Granada Hills in the West Valley League, upset third-seeded Eagle Rock 4-3 Friday. Granada Hills, the No. 1 seed, hosts No. 4 Van Nuys in Tuesday's other City semifinal. The winners will meet in the finals Friday at in Encino.
Palisades 7, Narbonne 0
(1) Diana Silvers, Palisades, d. Neda Boni, 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4.
(2) Katie Vincent, Palisades, d. Patty Ramos, 6-0, 6-1.
(3) Jessie Corneli, Palisades, d. Jaqueline Allayvilla, 6-0, 6-0.
(4) Izzy Guterson, Palisades, d. Czarina Nonga, 6-0, 6-0.
(1) Julie Takakjian-Perri Zaret, Palisades, d. Macy Gawaran-Megan Mercado, 6-2, 6-0.
(2) Jesse Zand-Katie Pfannkuche, Palisades, d. Patricia Arabit-Grace Arce, 6-0, 6-2.
(3) Emily Wettleson-Melody Wilkenfeld, Palisades, d. Abigail Santander-Giselle Ramirez, 6-0, 6-2.
Records: Narbonne 12-3; Palisades 13-0-1.