Presley Schultz didn’t know if she wanted to play doubles after impressively cracking the singles ladder as a freshman last year.
Jenna Curtola didn’t know if she wanted to play at all. She had won the Marin County Athletic League singles title as a junior, and wanted to make sure this year that she was at the right college next fall.
Not only did they come back, but they co-captained the Justin-Siena girls tennis team through a 12-0 maiden campaign in the new Vine Valley Athletic League.
The Braves outscored VVAL foes by a combined 73-11, posting four shutouts and never losing by worse than 5-2. Their dominance was apparently construed as being unchallenged much in the league, however, as they received only a No. 15 seed in the CIF North Coast Section Division 2 playoffs and a long road trip for their opener. Justin-Siena (12-1 overall) will open at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday against No. 2 seed Lick-Wilmerding at the City College of San Francisco courts.
“We’ve really focused on doubles all year,” head coach Jim Reilly said, “because we know at North Coast Sections you have to pick up both singles and doubles wins.”
For Curtola, coming back meant sharing No. 1 singles honors with sophomore Parvathi Shanker once again. Though she defeated Shanker in last year’s MCAL title match, Curtola played at No. 1 singles only three times in VVAL play. Shanker or her freshman sister, Priyanka, played the other nine league matches at No. 1.
But Curtola understood why she was mostly the team’s No. 2 player. After all, for the first offseason in years, she hadn’t played in any USTA tournaments.
“Ever since my junior season when I won the MCAL Tournament, I felt that I had done all that I wanted to do in high school tennis. So I took a break from it,” Curtola said Sunday. “I focused on school and my leadership class more. I’m also in student government and take a lot of AP classes and during the season I’ve been focused on applying to college and everything, so tennis wasn’t really my main focus.”
She still managed to go 3-0 at No. 1 singles and 8-0 at No. 2. All 11 wins were in straight sets, and she lost only four games.
“I was proud of myself for that,” she said of going undefeated in VVAL matches. “I wasn’t even sure that I was going to play my senior year because I hadn’t played in a while, and then I talked to my coaches and decided I was going to play anyway and make it a fun season. I’d been a captain since my sophomore year and I didn’t want to let my team down this year by not playing. I’ve been playing high school and club tennis my whole life and I know that I’m not going to play in college so I figured I’d give it one last go-round.”
Her lack of recent experience compared to that of the Shanker sisters finally reared its ugly head in the singles semifinals of the VVAL Championships, where Curtola lost 6-1, 6-0 to Priyanka Shanker.
“I played really well in my first two matches, but Priyanka and Parvathi played every day in the summer and in a lot of tournaments. I knew that if I had focused on tennis this summer and worked harder at it I would have done better, but it was more of just a fun thing. I was also worried about having to miss three AP classes that day, so my mind was elsewhere. It was just one of those days for me.
“But Priyanka played so well that day. I’d never seen her play like that before. She and Parvathi are only a freshman and sophomore and already playing so well. They practice all the time, they travel around and play weekends. If they keep that up, they’ll go far in tennis.”
Curtola has also been impressed with sophomore Roses Newell, who plays No. 1 doubles with Schultz, and freshman No. 4 singles player Bella Rampa. Curtola grew up playing with both under Green Valley instructors Phil Cello and Steve DeVries.
Newell, Ashlyn Mills and Schultz had the last three singles spots last year, but had to move down to doubles when Rampa and Priyanka Shanker came into the program.
“Roses has done well at doubles,” Curtola said. “I think singles is more her style of play, but she’s helped us get a lot of wins. Some came down to her match and she really pulled through. Bella has played so well this year. I’m so proud of her. She came out for the team and was nervous, and she had to challenge Roses for the fourth singles spot. She was super-excited when she did, and she’s worked hard the whole season to pull out wins for us.
“What was nice about the team this year was there was really no mean rivalries or drama. When Bella beat Roses, Roses was so happy that Bella was playing at that level. Roses, Bella and I have played together since we were little, and seeing them being supportive of each other even though they had to compete against each other was a good quality to have.”
Curtola said being a captain means “supporting the team and showing up to all of the practices. Every match I finished before a lot of the other people finished, so I’d stay and encourage everybody else. We have three seniors and two juniors, and the rest underclassmen, so I felt that throughout this season and even last season when most of them were freshmen, they kinda looked up to me. So I didn’t want to let them down this year and not have that role model. There were no cons to playing for me.”
Schultz went 10-1 in VVAL matches – 1-0 at No. 2 doubles, 6-1 at No. 1 doubles, and 3-0 at No. 4 singles.
Rather than commiserate over their spots in doubles matches, Schultz and Newell learned to play together well. They lost only to an American Canyon team in VVAL play.
“It’s nice because it’s more of a team sport when you’re playing doubles,” Schultz said after she and sophomore Lucia Lanzafame lost in the second round to eventual champions Jamie Pope and Cooper Lohman of Vintage.
Curtola said the VVAL has been a refreshing change from the rigors of the MCAL.
“We had no idea what to expect in this league and then playing your first two matches you realize that MCAL last year was such a harder league to play in,” she said. “Everybody was a lot more competitive and that makes me proud that I was able to get the MVP award in that league. It made my season even more relaxing. Last year it would take an hour and a half to get back from Marin County. This year, like when we played Vintage, it took five minutes.”
Curtola said it’s been nice to be coached by Reilly, assistant coach Jack Ring and volunteer assistant coach Judy Newell, Roses’ aunt and a former college player.
“I’ve known Judy my whole life and she’s always been there to help me,” Curtola said. “She knows the game so well. And Coach Reilly is such a funny guy. He’s kept the spirit of the team high the whole year, and Coach Ring is one of my favorite people. He keeps me focused on school and has definitely led me in the right direction.”
Added Schultz, “Roses’ aunt comes a couple days a week and helps us work on improving our skills. She watches our matches and has us do drills with her. She’s helped a lot. The other two coaches are great and very energetic about us as a team.”
Schultz filled in as captain with Curtola last year when senior captains were too busy.
“She’s easy to get along with,” Curtola said, “and every practice, every match, she stays until the end with me. Everybody gets along really well already. It’s easy to do team bonding and things like that.”
Along with Curtola, the Braves will graduate Patrizia Tandinco and Tiffany Wang. Other than Schultz, Libby Birkbeck would be the only returning senior next year.
Along with Parvathi Shanker, Mills, Newell and Lanzafame, this year’s 15 sophomores include Charlotte Schmitt, Emilia Pavenstadt, Ines Keller, Samantha Patterson, Anh Nguyen, Megan Kawashiri, Kathryn Nations, Julia Best, Isabelle Wells, Emily Herriott, Eliana Lawson and Cate St. Jean.
“We have a pretty good team this year and I think we have a good future, especially because we know what’s going on in the league now and what opponents we’re facing,” Schultz said. “I think everyone’s planning to return, and we might get some freshmen. But we’re a pretty solid team right now and I don’t think much is going to change.”
Schultz said she works well with Newell.
“I’ve been able to give her advice, and vice versa, on how we can improve as a team and how we can fix the mistakes we make in practice. We have a really good group of people. Everyone is very positive and we work well together.”
Schultz plans to go out for her third soccer season this winter, even though that program has struggled. Since winning 10 games in 2013, Justin-Siena girls soccer has won just nine games in five seasons.
“It’s a big change because our tennis team is really strong and soccer is kind of a different situation. It’s also hard because tennis is still going on and we had soccer tryouts this week. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into both. Ashlyn also plays soccer. Other people (such as Roses Newell and Lucia Lanzafame) play lacrosse in the spring for the school.”
“We’ve been working for sectionals for a while in practice, on what we should prepare for. We just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing, being consistent and supporting each other.”
Reilly said the team would like nothing more than to face No. 10 seed Cardinal Newman in Thursday’s quarterfinals. The Cardinals, who beat a shorthanded Justin-Siena team in its only nonleague match, open Tuesday at No. 7 Head-Royce.
The Braves won’t be shorthanded in the playoffs. They’ll be looking to put the VVAL on the map.
“This is the strongest team I’ve ever coached, and we have the nicest girls,” Reilly said. “They’re willing to do whatever it takes for the team to do well. We’ve had no backlash at all.
“Everyone’s stepped up their games. Like we asked them to at the beginning of the season, we have a special team and we have to come together as a team, put everything else aside and let the coaches do what’s best for the team.”
Reilly said having improvements made to the campus courts so they can practice and play there instead of at Napa Valley College this year has also been a big plus.
“We have a home court like we never really had at the college,” he said. ”It’s given us an extra buzz at school because kids can come by and see tennis being played.
“Whoever is in front of us in the playoffs, we’re going to do our best. The girls are excited and we want to keep going.”
This will likely be the last tennis season for Curtola, who is trying to get into UCLA or USC. But she said it’s helped her confidence in other areas.
“From playing my whole life I’ve learned a lot from the game,” she said. “Tennis is big about sportsmanship and the honors system and I think I’ve learned lot about being honest with my calls in tennis and also in general. I’ve also played many matches where I’ve been down in sets where the other girl is about to win and I won’t give up. I’ll be tenacious and come back. It’s happened in quite a few matches I’ve played, and it shows that if I stick with it, I can succeed.
“So I’ll take those life lessons with me, and our girls tennis program will be set for a few years more.”