Taft boy tennis team cruises to first title with win over Immanuel

Led by double wins from team captains Chuy Gutierrez and Cristo Miranda, the Taft High boys’ tennis team won its first Section championship in school history, 7-2, over the No. 2 seeded Immanuel Eagles Wednesday.

“It was a team effort with all eight starters earning wins,” coach Jim Carnal praised. “Volunteer coach Bill Friend said all of our players played the best matches of the season. They peaked at the perfect time.”

The No. 1 seeded Wildcats needed to play their best because Immanuel’s No. 1 player, junior Aaron Reimer, qualified for the Sweet 16 Valley individual playoffs and their number 2 and 3 players, senior Michael Botello and sophomore Travis Bakker, also qualified fro the Valley playoffs in doubles. Taft’s top six players qualified for the Area (Kern County) Tournament but no one advanced out of the round of 64 to the Valley playoffs. While Immanuel had one dominating player at No. 1, Taft had more depth from there on down.

Taft jumped out to a commanding lead in the singles round in the best-of-nine competition (six singles followed by three doubles matches). Miranda notched the first win at No. 4 singles by beating freshman Joel Reimer, 6-3, 6-0. Next off was Isaiah Sharp at No. 6 with a one-sided win over fellow senior Austin King, 6-0, 6-1. Gutierrez finished off fellow senior Michael Botello at No. 2 singles, 6-1, 6-2. And, Kyler Fields held on to beat fellow junior Elijah Smith, 6-0, 6-4. Reimer beat Taft’s Rafa Arreguin, 6-2, 6-2, at the top spot.

Up 4-1, Taft could seal the win in the singles round before the always treacherous doubles round. All eyes turned to No. 3 Cameron Bunch, a senior, who was playing Bakker from the private school in Reedley. Bakker won the first set, 6-4, but Bunch took a 5-0 lead in the second set and closed it out at 6-2. Before the growing crowd, Bakker regained the momentum and won the deciding 10-point tiebreaker, 10-6.

Then came the strategy portion of the match. Taft had to win just one of the doubles to win while Immanuel had the daunting task of needing to sweep all three.

“We loaded the bottom doubles with No. 2 Chuy playing with No. 8 Pastor Magana,” Coach Carnal said. “Bill devised the top two doubles teams to make them both competitive. He put Rafa and Christo together at No. 1. They had made the round of 32 players last year and play well together. Bill put Cameron, who was eager to avenge his singles loss, with Brayan Herrera, a doubles specialist.”

Immanuel coach Kevin Lott had to break up his Valley qualifying doubles team. He put his No. 1 player in No. 1 doubles with his No. 5 player, as he had done in earlier playoff games. But he put his No. 2 player with his No. 7 player, junior Christian Reed, to anchor No. 2 doubles, and his No. 3 player with his No. 9 player, junior James Sorenson, to add heft to his No. 3 doubles team.

Taft’s game plan went according to script, and then some. Gutierrez and Magana beat Bakker and Sorenson, 6-2, 6-2, to win the championship. A few minutes later, Bunch and Herrera beat Botello and Reed at 2 doubles, 6-2, 6-2. And then Arreguin and Miranda beat Reimer and Smith, 7-5, 6-3. “Rafa probably played the best match of his career and Cristo played great as well. Bill and Linda Friend and I practice a lot of doubles with the players and I don’t think Immanuel was used to playing really good doubles teams. The Eagle players would fire the ball at our net players and the Wildcats would invariably return the fast balls,” Carnal said. “It was great because all eight starters got at least one win.

“We had a great season and a fantastic playoff run,” Carnal said. We beat Central Valley Christian in the quarterfinals, 8-1, to avenge our 5-4 finals loss to them last year. Beating Immanuel Wednesday was particularly gratifying because they knocked us out of the playoffs in 2010 and 2011.

“I knew this would be  our year two or three years ago because Chuy, Rafa, Cameron and Cristo made varsity as freshmen or sophomores and made up the nucleus of this team. They are great athletes and they stuck with it, worked hard and continually improved. Oftentimes after matches, even away matches when we got home, they would stay and hit on the courts for another hour or two, and on weekends. It all paid off on Wednesday.

“The coaching staff was essential. Long-time coach Bill Friend brought a depth of strategy and tactics. His wife, Linda, passed on her volleying expertise. JV coach Doug Taylor and his assistant coach, Hector Hinojosa, a former player, led the JV team to an undefeated league championship, then spent the past three weeks helping the varsity team improve. It really is true: surround yourself with great people and good things happen.”

The boys’ first championship follows on the heels of the girls’ first Section championship last school year.

The boys finished with a best-ever record of 23-4. Immanuel was 19-4 and the only playoff team that pushed Taft into the doubles round.

“It was an amazing experience to play tennis with this group of interesting individuals,” Gutierrez summed up. “I’m excited to share this landmark title with them.”