More Than an Athlete: West Ranch’s Jake Anderson

West Ranch boys tennis' Jake Anderson holds up a photo of his father, Mike, his mother, Nicole and himself as a child. Nicole died of bile duct cancer in April. Haley Sawyer/The Signal

At any given West Ranch boys tennis match, a relentless Nicole Anderson could be found on the sidelines. She’d cheer on her son, Jake, but she also wouldn’t hesitate to call out Wildcats coach and personal friend Eric Spiecker whenever she disagreed with him.

No matter where in Southern California the match or tournament was Nicole was there.

But at a match against Valencia during Anderson’s senior year, she was missing. She had died two days earlier of bile duct cancer, a rare but aggressive form of cancer that affects less than 20,000 Americans each year.

Anderson’s dad, Mike, wasn’t there either. While Anderson took backhand shots and made serves, Mike was making funeral arrangements.

“I knew that she would want me to go play and win because she couldn’t be there, but I know she’d be yelling and screaming,” Anderson said.

With his mom in mind, Anderson and his doubles partner, Aristo Turalakey, won all three sets against Valencia as the Wildcats won the Foothill League title outright.

“I needed to do that,” Anderson said. “Just to win for her.”

Jake Anderson tosses a tennis ball. Haley Sawyer/The Signal

Anderson’s family noticed that something with Nicole just didn’t seem right around Thanksgiving of 2017. Typically a gregarious socialite and fierce tennis player, she was drained of energy and had chronic aches and pains.

She began going to doctors, taking test after test with no avail. January was when she received the cancer diagnosis and shortly after, she was hospitalized.

“When somebody that young gets a diagnosis like that, you’re always surprised and shocked and she had been playing tennis at the (Paseo Club),” said West Ranch tennis coach Eric Spiecker. “She’s kind of an icon women’s doubles player here and when you know she’s been playing tennis a few months earlier to hear the severity, you’re shocked.”

Spiecker and his wife Adeline constantly prayed for Nicole and did their best to help out the Anderson family that they knew so well. As Nicole battled, the Santa Clarita tennis community rallied.

Erin Pang of Saugus came up with the idea for his team to wear green ribbons, the color that represents bile duct cancer, during a match against Valencia. The teams painted a massive banner that said “Saugus & Valencia rise together” as well as “#teamnicole.”

The banner hung inside the Anderson household as a constant reminder of the positive impact that Nicole had on everyone’s lives.

Throughout his mother’s sickness, Anderson remained steadfast when it came to tennis. He was at every match and only missed one practice in the entire season.

He also focused on his college decision-making process, which led him to choose University of South Carolina. He’ll be walking on to the tennis team there.

“I tried to keep everything normal,” Anderson said. “I know like, my mom wouldn’t want me to skip playing and practicing and helping the team win. It was kind of the same with me and my college decision.

“I think because I was thinking about staying (in California for school), but it wouldn’t have mattered anyways because it happened so quickly, but she told me herself that she like, wanted me to do what I wanted to do.”

Jake Anderson flips through old photos of his mom. Haley Sawyer/The Signal

The morning of April 15, Anderson came out of his bedroom and saw his family in tears. Nicole had died around 1 a.m. at 47 years old after several weeks of hospice.

And still, Anderson remained focused on tennis. Two days after his mom’s death, he was back on the court for the league title match against Valencia.

“That’s not a coping thing,” Spiecker said. “I think he was just literally showing his devotion to his mom. I supported him by letting him have a sanctuary at practice … I just know that he had courage and I think the way he expressed his love and devotion for his mom was to be there for her.”

Anderson will head to South Carolina for school in August and his family will be making the move with him as they relocate to Beaufort.

At the West Ranch tennis courts, a new banner will hang next to the league championship banner that in memoriam of Nicole’s commitment to tennis. So while her shouts of encouragement (and sometimes criticism) will no longer echo across the courts, her presence, and consequently the presence of Anderson’s unwavering commitment, will inspire Wildcats for years to come.

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