By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Manteca netters on brink of history
TEN--SJS D3 Finals ADV pic
Manteca High boys tennis coach Frank Fontana speaks with his players at the end of the Buffaloes final practice of the season Tuesday. Today, theyll head to Ceres for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III title. - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO/The Bulletin

Frank Fontana joined in on a three-on-three drill, talking a little trash and sharing laughs in what was the final practice of the season for the 2015 Manteca High boys tennis team.

It gets more serious starting today when the Buffaloes (19-3) head to Ceres to contend for the first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship. Then on Thursday, the team’s top two players — Yok Jing Ma and Mike Lopez — will vie for the SJS Division II doubles title at Johnson Racquet Club in Roseville.

“Normally we keep it real strict and we’re not messing around,” Lopez said. “It’s usually all business in practice.”

That wasn’t always the case in Tuesday’s workout. While Fontana tried to simulate pressure situations in certain drills, he also made it a point to keep things light.

“I have to keep in mind this is high school tennis,” Fontana said. “This isn’t the Wimbledon final. For a lot of these guys, in reality this is their last practice with a tennis team. This is it. I don’t want them to be overcome by the moment.”

Fontana also didn’t diminish the fact that he will coach the biggest match of his 10-year coaching career, one highlighted by six Valley Oak League team championships.

Manteca has never earned a title of any kind at the section level. In 1988, Manteca lost an 8-1 decision to Central Catholic in the Division II final. The team hasn’t come close to advancing that far since.

This year, the section opened up a third division to separate mid-sized schools like Manteca and Ceres from the larger traditional powerhouses — such as 12-time section champ Rio Americano — from up north. Division III champions, however, are not eligible to compete in the CIF/USTA Northern California Regional Championships.

“Creating that Division III puts us on a more even playing field,” Fontana said. “We’re now playing the same schools that say the baseball team would play, but in the past we were always playing up to Division II when our league is considered a Division III league. It’s a huge jump in terms of quality of play.”

Ma and Lopez are attempting to do what several Buffaloes of years past could not. Eddie Hubik and Jeff Marks were swept in the 1988 and 90 SJS Division II singles championships, respectively. In 1980, Greg Toy and Jody Ruble dropped a three-set match in the Division II doubles final. Fontana’s only players to make it to the final match were doubles partners Yassen Aniss and Arnie Morales, who lost 6-3, 2-6, 4-6 to Andrew Hall and Dusty Davis of Oak Ridge back in 2009.

Ma forfeited a chance to play for a VOL singles title, won by Kimball standout Garret Chun for a third straight year. Realistically, he has a better shot at doing bigger things at the section level as a doubles competitor with Lopez, his longtime friend.

“We’re looking forward to going out with a bang,” Lopez said. “Whether we win both (team and individual titles), just one or none at all — either way, no regrets.”

First things first …

Fontana views his team as the heavy underdog against the Bulldogs of Ceres, who boast a 26-0 record and two seasoned standouts in sophomore Nolan McCaig and senior Julio Ochoa. They finished 1 and 2 in the Western Athletic Conference for a second straight year, and as a freshman McCaig defeated Ma in the second round 6-2, 6-2 while on his way to a runner-up finish in the SJS Division II Individual Tournament.

“I have four kids who are playing their second year of tennis, while they have eight kids with four years of varsity experience. That’s a big difference,” Fontana said. “They’re hosting it, they have the gaudy record and they’re the ones who are supposed to win this match. We only have to beat them once. This isn’t a best-of-seven, we have to beat them one time and that’s it.”

Kimball’s Chun topped McCaig in three sets in their team semifinal on Monday, but Ceres prevailed, 5-4. Manteca also eked out a 5-4 win over Tri-County Conference champion River City.

“They’re a similar team to us in that they have two really strong players and so do we, but their top two are two of the best in the section — not just Division II or III, the section,” Fontana said. “That puts more focus on the rest of the team than on the singles stars.”

In team tennis, the No. 1 singles match counts the same as the No. 3 doubles match. Ma and Lopez don’t always win, but they can count on their teammates to pick up the slack. That doesn’t mean they don’t put pressure on themselves to perform in team matches.

“Being the top guys, if you don’t play well it bleeds onto the rest of the team,” Ma said. “Those guys look up to us, so we have to put on a good face whether we win or lose.”

Fellow senior Spencer Jackson is the sixth player on the team ladder and a big reason for the team’s success.

“Even though we play separately we need to work together as a team,” Jackson said. “I’ve played Yok and Mike in practice and they usually win against me, but it’s good experience. Anytime that I play a strong opponent I can remember that I’ve played against players like that on my own team, but my main focus is that I’m playing for the team.”

Today, they’ll play as a team one last time.

“We have fun with each other,” Ma said. “This is our last time on the court together and I’m going to really miss these guys.”