Sierra girls tennis coach Ed Melfort knew what he was getting in Kaitlyn Rausa, an incoming freshman who has worked extensively with him through the Manteca Parks & Recreation year-round program.
At East Union, Japanese exchange student Fuko Inoue was an unknown by the time the school year started. She caught the eye of Rick Mitchell, a physical education teacher and boys tennis coach at the school, and encouraged her to come out for Sarah Sanguinetti’s girls team.
It didn’t take long for the two newcomers to get acquainted, as they clashed on the first day of competition in Valley Oak League play. After splitting their matches in the regular season, both ended up in the league tournament finals — Rausa in singles, and Inoue for doubles. They’re the Manteca Bulletin All-Area Tennis Co-Players of the Year.
Sierra qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section team playoffs for just the third time since 2010, and the Timberwolves should make annual appearances with Rausa leading the charge. Rausa dethroned returning senior Claire Banks — the VOL’s singles tourney runner-up last year — for the team’s No. 1 spot, beating her twice in three challenge matches.
Melfort had high expectations for the freshman but warned her of the high-intensity rivalry matches in league. She got a taste of it playing against the grizzled Banks in practice, but then came the big surprise in the team’s VOL opener at East Union.
Rausa had a tough time in dispatching Inoue, 4-6, 6-1, 6-3. Inoue got the better of Sierra’s top player in the rematch, 6-2, 7-6 (5).
“I think that match was a surprise to everyone,” Melfort said. “She realized that it’s not going to be easy in league, and that’s probably a good thing for her. We played (league and SJS Division III champion) Manteca after that, so right off the bat she got introduced to VOL tennis.
“High school tennis is a lot different from tournaments. Most players at the high school level play a different style, and tournament players just aren’t used to playing in a team setting where so many people are watching you and cheering you on.”
It was an entirely new experience for Inoue, a tournament veteran in the Far East. She only had a little more than a week to get to know her new teammates before facing Rausa for the first time, but Sanguinetti knew right away she had something special in this newfound talent.
“She worked real well with other team members,” Sanguinetti said. “She’s not just a wonderful player but also a wonderful person. Win or lose, her character never changed, and she is probably the most respectful players I’ve had.
“It was fun to watch her play — very entertaining. She has hit with the boys team and is able to keep pace with whatever they threw at her. She can work against and adapt to any style.”
Both Rausa and Inoue finished 11-3 in VOL dual matches, with their other losses coming against Oakdale’s Tay Talamentes. Talamentes swept second-seeded Rausa 6-2, 6-2 in the tournament final. Inoue, seeded third, was upset by No. 6 Koryn Menasco 4-6, 4-6 in the quarterfinals, but the loss allowed for her to compete in the doubles tournament.
Inoue teamed up with Natalie Karim and got her revenge two days later. The East Union tandem stunned Manteca’s No. 2-seeded tandem of Taylor Corona and Menasco 5-7, 6-4, 7-6(2) in the semifinal round en route to winning the championship. Inoue and Karim are the first East Union doubles team to win a VOL title since 2011.
“They played so well together,” Sanguinetti said of Inoue and Karim. “It was nice to see her bounce back from the loss (in the singles tourney).”
Inoue played her final match for East Union in the SJS Division II Individual Tournament in Roseville, where she and Karim lost to Katie McDaniel and Tatiana Orellana of Vanden, 1-6, 4-6. Although she is just a junior, Inoue will leave for home after the school year.
“She was such a joy to have her on the team,” Sanguinetti said. “I’m going to miss her when she’s gone.”
For Rausa, it’s just the beginning to a promising career. She showed her potential in a competitive 4-6, 6-2, 4-6 loss to Benicia’s Lily Hayward in the section tournament.
“In the beginning, I think she was a little nervous, even playing Claire in challenge matches,” Melfort said. “You have to remember that she’s just a freshman, so she’s naturally kind of shy, and being our No. 1 really put a bull’s-eye on her. But I think the experienced she gained really helped her. She’s going to continue to get better and better in the offseason and she will have more confidence going into next year.”