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Hard work pays off for VOL champion
sports teaser
Sierra Highs Anna Cardenas keeps the ball in play during the Valley Oak League Championships at East Union on Oct. 24. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

Anna Cardenas strived to be No. 1 — on her own team.

That would explain the countless hours and gallons of sweat poured onto tennis courts around town, including one set up in her coach’s backyard.

“I offer my players extra court time at my house during the offseason, and Anna was always calling me,” said Vanessa Weeks, Sierra’s third-year head coach who provides private lessons on her court.

“I have had to tell her not to play sometimes, that she needed to take a couple of days off.”

Cardenas would politely refuse, the only act of defiance for a player Weeks holds in high regard for her coachability.

Cardenas did not go out for track in the spring to focus solely on tennis. She wanted Sierra’s No. 1 spot that badly and got it, but not in the way Cardenas had preferred.

Fellow incoming senior Naomi Nunis, a gifted athlete and soccer standout who stood between Cardenas and the top of the team’s ladder, underwent season-ending knee surgery before the season had even begun.

“When I found out she wouldn’t be competing this year I was like, ‘Great, I’m the default No. 1,” Cardenas said of her former doubles partner’s injury. “It was a shame. It did hurt us quite a bit because a lot of our matches were lost by a point. With her we had a chance at winning league.”

The hard work didn’t completely go to waste.

She went on to be No. 1 in the Valley Oak League and is the Manteca Bulletin’s All-Area Girls Tennis Player of the Year. Cardenas follows in the footsteps of former Sierra standout Vannida Nguyen, a three-time VOL tournament finalist who won the league title and was named the area’s top player a year ago.

“Anna was really dedicated this year,” Weeks said. “She was determined to play as our No. 1, to win VOL and make it to sections and she did all of that.”

The Timberwolves were more competitive than their 5-9 league record this past fall. Cardenas expected better, as she was not only driven by her desire to be the Timberwolves’ top dog.

“I wanted to make our team better,” she said. “I thought that if I continued to practice, that would just make everyone else on the team want to practice just as hard and make things more competitive. I wanted to raise the level of our team.”

Cardenas had to settle for individual success. She received a big confidence boost in early September by placing fifth in the Freedom High Invitational in Oakley.

Cardenas went 9-5 in the regular season, splitting with other VOL contenders. With so much parity at the top, there was no real frontrunner going into the conference tournament.

Seeded second, Cardenas was awarded a first-round bye and coasted through the next two before meeting Oakdale’s Christine Kim in the semifinals. She topped the sixth-seeded Kim in what was her most taxing match of the tourney, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4.

“Even though it was later in the season it was still super hot, and we had just played two other matches,” Cardenas said. “We were so tired by the time we got to each other that the power in our shots just wasn’t there. That was a battle of endurance more than anything. Both of us would not give up, but I remember there was a time I wasn’t so sure I could do it.”

Weeks provided all the encouragement she could. A banana, of all things, did the trick.

“Coach gave me a banana, and everything just seemed to work from there,” Cardenas said.

She squared off with another Oakdale player in the championship match two days later. Fifth-seeded Christine Winders was the last opponent Cardenas wanted to see in the finals. During a regular-season match, Winders replaced the then-injured Kim in the No. 1 spot, and Cardenas struggled with her defensive style en route to a loss.

“I was a little nervous because I had lost to her before,” Cardenas said. “It’s the type of match you know you can win, but she was so consistent and had a way of making things difficult. The next day I practiced hitting short balls and high lobs because I knew that was all she was going to feed me.

“When I got to the match I was ready to play and the nerves were gone.”

It was the best Cardenas played all season. She dominated, 6-1, 6-2.

“That was the pinnacle of my season,” Cardenas. “I was not only confident, but my shots showed my confidence. I was really proud of myself.”

By reaching the VOL finals she qualified for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II Individual Tournament for a second straight season, this time as a singles player. She fell to Anna Ditler of Pioneer 2-6, 1-6, but she took the season-ending defeat in stride.

Getting the chance to watch elite-level players from the Sacramento area made the whole experience worth it. It was her second appearance at sections after qualifying last year with Nunis, with whom she placed second in the VOL doubles tournament.

“I played another girl named Anna, so either way an Anna was going to win,” Cardenas joked. “That was my first time going up there (Johnson Ranch Racquet Club in Roseville) as a singles player. Just being there and seeing the talent of girls who started playing way before me was amazing. Most of them are playing college tennis on scholarships.”

As for Cardenas, she plans on continuing her tennis career at the next level, “even if it’s just intramurals.” She has applied to schools such as Cornell, Yale, UC Davis and Santa Clara with plans of studying broadcast journalism or veterinary science.

Wherever she ends up, Cardenas is sure to have her racquet with her.

“I just really love tennis,” she said. “It’s my passion, so practicing every day isn’t a hassle to me.”