Spartans trying to regain their footing

Hand-Eye Coordination | © Richard Gillard/Acorn Newspapers
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© Richard Gillard/Acorn Newspapers
Rio Mesa High’s Sam Birns rips a forehand return back at the net. © Richard Gillard/Acorn Newspapers
Steve Worthington can’t stop smiling. It’s practice, after all, the best part of the day.

In fact, he’s downright giddy, like a kid about to take over Willy Wonka’s chocolate empire.

Worthington, the Rio Mesa High boys’ tennis head coach, understands that his team will take its lumps. That’s fine.

The Spartan coach enjoys teaching, talking, joking and interacting with his players.

“We’re not the most talented team Rio Mesa’s ever had,” Worthington said. “But the team is bonded. We have a camaraderie that I think is very special.”

High school sports aren’t always about winning or losing. They’re about fun, effort and sportsmanship. In a way, this team is already successful.

“They are quality young men,” Worthington said. “That transcends tennis and mere athletics. They have skills and a demeanor that will lend itself to success in their personal lives.

“There’s not a guy who’s not welcome in my home. Knock on the door. Come on in. They’re quality people.”

On the hardcourt, the Spartans (4-4 overall, 1-3 in league as of Thursday) work on consistency.

The coach wants each player to seriously compete for every point, game and match. Point management and offensive strategies are also stressed.

Worthington is still shuffling the lineup, tirelessly seeking the strongest combinations.

Kyle Crocket has played all four years with Rio Mesa. The easygoing senior plays singles and doubles.

Crocket has no trouble looking up to younger players, calling No. 1 singles standout and sophomore sensation Sam Birns a “veteran.”

“We support each other,” Crocket said. “The experienced guys are helping out younger guys.”

Crocket takes pride in his solid forehand and general consistency. He’s working on being more aggressive and active at the net.

Although tennis is an individual sport, it’s all about the team at Rio Mesa.

“Our primary focus is always as a team,” Crocket said. “Our goals are to make it to the CIF playoffs and hopefully make something happen.”

The 17-year-old is an honors student with a 4.0 grade-point average. He hopes to study engineering at Cal Poly.

Alec Branch has been playing doubles in recent weeks with Crocket.

A three-year varsity player, the tall and lanky Branch said the Spartans play hard. As long as they fight for every point, win or lose, it’s all good.

“We win as a team. We lose as a team,” Branch said. “We learn from each other and help each other out.”

An honors student with a 4.4 GPA, Branch would also like to study engineering in college.

Daniel Balderrama started playing tennis at age 6.

Now 17, he’s suiting up in doubles, teaming up with Kyle Crier the past few weeks.

“We have good guys,” Balderrama said. “Even if we lose, we have pride.”

The junior is working on serving consistency. He misses getting those aces.

“Aces are fun once in a while,” he said. “I have to be more consistent and play out the point.”

Balderrama, an honors student with a 3.5 GPA, played trumpet in the marching band for two years. This year, he’s the drum major with the marching band. His older brothers Luis and Nick also played tennis at Rio Mesa.

The Spartan has witnessed his teammates make strides.

“We’ll definitely get better,” he said. “We’re already better.”

Junior Daniel Whipple transferred from St. Bonaventure.

A football and baseball player with the Seraphs, Whipple is playing tennis for the first time.

After suffering a broken arm playing football, Whipple wanted to give tennis a try. He practiced almost every day in the summer with his younger brother Sam and his father, John.

Whipple didn’t want to suit up for Rio Mesa until he was ready.

“I got good enough and I thought I should try out for the team,” Whipple said. “It’s a lot of fun. And I’m getting to play a lot. That’s nice.”

The junior honors student with a 3.5 GPA is improving every facet of his tennis game, especially his serve.

Whipple, a drummer for the rock band State of Entropy, also plays the guitar.

Sophomore Will Czubiak enjoys competing with the Spartans.

“This has been a fun experience,” the singles and doubles player said.

Czubiak takes pride in his strong volleys and ability to finish shots at the net. He’s improved his forehand and serve.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Czubiak said, “and trying our hardest. We’re having fun and getting better.”

Birns, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, stands out at singles.

“He’s the face of Rio Mesa tennis,” Worthington said of Birns. “He’s very coachable, talented and intelligent. He soaks up knowledge— he wants to be better.”

Senior Mat Lust, junior Austin Claggett and sophomore Jason Chua bolster the lineup.

Worthington looks forward to practice every day. He literally can’t wait.

“I look at the clock and say, ‘In two more hours, I get to play tennis with these guys!’” Worthington said.

“I’m so excited to lead this great team. People might ask, ‘Great?’ I’m not talking about records. I’m talking about the quality of people. They may lose a match, but they will not surrender.”

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