When Kiara Buenaventura, Mariah Fule and Kalie Lopez enrolled at San Fernando High School as freshmen in 2016, they didn’t know each other and weren’t particularly enamored with playing sports. Maybe try out for soccer or basketball….maybe. But not something like tennis, which none had ever played
Little did they know that by the time they were seniors, they would be trailblazers.
Buenaventura and Fule are captains of the Tigers girls’ tennis team. Lopez is a team leader. And they, along with their 12 teammates, are now Los Angeles City Section champions. The Tigers won the Division II title on Nov. 8, defeating University High of Los Angeles, 4-3, in the final held at the Balboa Sports Center in Encino.
It was the first team tennis title won by San Fernando since the City Section began having girls’ championships in 1973.
And it puts a remarkable cap to the high school careers of the three seniors, who never would have predicted this kind of achievement when they first stepped on the San Fernando campus.
“I was lazy,” noted Lopez, 17. “When I got to high school I didn’t want to join a sport. I even hated running for PE. I’d heard that in tennis you didn’t have to run, or do a lot. So me and a friend were like, ‘okay, let’s join tennis.’ So I joined in 10th grade, and developed a really strong passion for the sport. Now I really love tennis.”
Both Fule, 18, and Buenaventura, 17, had older sisters at San Fernando High that played on the tennis team. And the big sisters cajoled and gently twisted the arms of their younger siblings to join the team if, for nothing else, to keep them company. Before that Fule had considered trying out for basketball or track, and Buenaventura thought about trying soccer or wrestling.
But all three have played tennis since they were freshmen. Lopez is part of the Tigers No. 1 doubles team. Fule plays singles. Buenaventura also plays doubles, and hit the winning shot that decided the championship for San Fernando.
Tigers Coach Chris Samsell said it is not unusual for City Section tennis teams to have multiple players who had not learned the game before coming to their school. So winning championships are not exactly a foregone conclusion.
Even though the Tigers had shown excellence this season (14-1), even though they were the division’s top seed when the playoff bracket was announced, and even though they had waltzed through their first three playoff opponents — Wilson High of Los Angeles (7-0), Van Nuys (5-2) and Los Angeles CES High (7-0) — probably few outside of the team members themselves actually believed they could do it until they had actually won a championship.
Samsell, however, said there were a couple of clues.
“Last year one of the teams (Kennedy) got as far as the semifinals, and we beat them twice rather easily. So I figured we were primed for a deep run in the playoffs,” the coach said. “And being the number one seed, it was right there in front of us.”
Samsell said the team played “with remarkable composure” throughout the playoffs, in part because the first three rounds were all at home. But at the final, there were definite signs of nerves.
When the team arrived at the Balboa Center, the University team was already inside, on courts and going through their warmup routine. “University, through no fault of its own, had monopolized the benches,” Samsell recalled. “My players are just standing around awkwardly — ‘what are we gonna do, there’s no place to sit.’ I took my team and walked to another court, and my team was trailing far behind me. I told the captains we were acting scared. And they turned around and yelled ‘hurry up, catch up.’”
When the Tigers got to another area to warmup, Samsell told them they were acting scared “and this has to stop.” But he also knew he needed to find a way to relax them.
Then he got an idea.
“For warmups we weren’t allowed to hit the ball, just stretch,” Samsell said. “But I told them to do our ‘hit-and-run,’ where [normally] I would throw a ball to them, they’d hit a forehand or backhand and then run around the court to warm up. This time I pretended to throw the ball, they pretended to hit forehands, then backhands, then lobs, then run around. It got them laughing; they were loosey-goosey after that. I thought, ‘they’re good now.’”
Buenaventura agreed. “It was just for fun. But it got us comfortable, shook the nerves off and got us loose.”
And, ultimately, to a Division II title.
Tennis isn’t held to the same level of esteem and standard at San Fernando High as some other sports such as baseball, football and wrestling, which all have produced their own championships and memorable performers.
“It’s one of the ‘least’ sports [at San Fernando], no one really knows about it,” Lopez said. “My friends say ‘oh, it’s just hitting a ball over a net, that’s easy.’”
Adds Fule, “(The students) always make fun of tennis. Whenever they refer to someone as weak with their friends, they say ‘you should join tennis.’ They degrade the sport.
“But not anymore.”
Buenaventura believes now, by winning a championship, the team will be looked upon more favorably.
“Tennis has not been shown the same kind of respect as football or basketball,” she said. “But we are as good as the other sports in this school, and we should get the same recognition as the other great athletics here.”
The team has been saluted at the school all week with classroom announcements, and will get a public acknowledgement before the football team’s home playoff game on Friday, Nov. 15.
And the trio of seniors all reaffirmed that the accomplishment will not fade away with time.
“I will remember I was part of the team that won the first championship,” Fule said. “I was part of something big that made the school proud, that made my coach and family proud, that made me proud.”
Buenaventura will never forget the finish. “When I got the last point, I just burst into tears. I’d never done that. It was just a sudden reaction: ‘Wow, I won, my team is champion!’”
And as for Lopez, the most special memory did not come from the match itself.
“My racquet was a gift from a very close family friend,” Lopez said. She said ‘if you believe in God, then believe God blessed you with a talent, and with this racquet you can win.’ Coming home to her and saying ‘I won with the racquet you gave me,’ was really great.”