By JONAMAR JACINTO
Mike Lopez remembers his first encounter with Yok Jing Ma fondly.
That’s because he won, although the margin of victory is still in debate.
“We met in a tournament when we were both 9 and I beat him, 7-5,” Lopez said. “I remember it because I originally thought it was 7-4, but his mom says it’s 7-5. We still joke about it now.”
Their relationship grew on the tennis court, and they got to know each even better as classmates at Woodward School and Manteca High. It led them down a path of championships.
They didn’t meet their goals at the end of their senior season, but it was fitting that they went down swinging together. The Manteca Bulletin’s All-Area Boys Tennis Co-Players of the Year had the Manteca tennis team on the cusp of history.
The Buffaloes advanced to its their first SJS title-round appearance but lost 5-4 to host Ceres in Division III. Days later Lopez and Ma reached the SJS Division II Doubles Tournament finals but again settled for second place.
“Yok’s a really good guy and a great partner,” Lopez said. “I felt like I let him down in the finals. I didn’t play like I was capable but he was just really supportive. In the end we couldn’t pull through. We had a blast, though, and I wouldn’t have rather played with anyone else.”
Funny. Ma nearly said the same thing in a separate conversation.
“I wouldn’t take any other person out there,” Ma said. “I’ve played with him since I was 10. We obviously know each other very well and we’re pretty much best friends. It’s kind of disappointing that we went out with two second places, but it’s fine. We had a great four years.”
They’re a part of three Valley Oak League championship teams, including a perfect run in 2015. Lopez was a VOL Singles Tournament finalist his freshman year, losing to then-senior teammate Oral Nunis, and was the All-Area Player of the Year in 2013. Ma earned the honor last season when he played for the VOL singles title. Ma is also a three-time league doubles champion, with Lopez capturing two doubles titles.
Manteca coach Frank Fontana has molded them both since they started playing tennis and said it was a luxury having the dedicated year-round players for four years in high school. It was like a baseball team having two ace pitchers.
“If you take either of them away it would have hurt our team,” Fontana said. “In my opinion, there’s no difference between them other than style of play. We had a No. 1 and 1a with them.”
Lopez is the defensive baseliner who relies on consistent play to get the better of his opponents. Ma is the more aggressive and hard-swinging type. They figured their complementary styles and chemistry could yield a first section championship for Manteca.
But to compete as doubles partners both had to sacrifice their eligibility as singles competitors in the VOL Tournament. The two singles finalists also qualify for the SJS Division II Individual Tournament but are exempt from doubles play.
Ma was a heavy favorite to meet Kimball standout Garrett Chun, who went on to win a third straight league singles title. Ma had been the only player in league capable of challenging him.
Ma had no regrets about the decision then and feels the same way now. The goal all along was to win a section title for the glory of the program.
“These guys made sacrifices,” Fontana said. “I don’t know too many kids who would do that.”
Lopez and Ma were seeded second for the section doubles tourney and became the third doubles tandem from Manteca to reach the final round. But like the others before them they came up short, falling to top-seeded Jack Lonergan and Sarthak Saxena of powerhouse Rio Americano, 2-6, 2-6.
“We were on the show court and all eyes were on us,” Ma said. “We played our hardest out there trying to fend them off. Even though we lost I had Mike at my side the whole time. It was comforting having a good friend on the court with me.”
And it was for the last time in a competitive setting. Their friendship will continue as they take separate paths to the college ranks. Lopez plans to play for the Modesto Junior College team, saying it’s too hard giving up on a sport that has “really molded me to who I am today.”
Ma, on the other hand, will take his racquets to UC Davis and will likely play at the recreation level as he focuses his efforts on studying pre-med. Until then he’ll bask in all that he and the Buffaloes accomplished for each other and the coach he calls “a second dad.”
“It was great being a part of it all,” he said. “For all the players, we’re the kids who played a big part in Manteca High tennis history. It was nice to leave a good name for the school.”
Added Lopez: “I had a blast. Met a lot of people and friends who I will always keep in touch with. Everyone I played with left a mark on me and hopefully I left a mark on them. I’m proud of what Manteca High tennis has done the last four years.”