COC women’s tennis features a collection of SCV talent

Nicole Villarta prepares to return the ball to her opponent at College of the Canyons. // Photo courtesy Jesse Munoz/COC Sports Information
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In the third year of its existence, the College of the Canyons women’s tennis team has rocketed to a fantastic start, winning nine of its first 10 matches. 

One of the most exciting parts of COC’s great start is that a majority of the girls come from the Santa Clarita Valley.

Of the 11-woman roster, nine of the girls call Santa Clarita home, and seven of them hail from Foothill League schools. Those seven girls are comprised of three Valencia grads, two Hart alumni, a former West Ranch student and an ex-Golden Valley student. 

Freshman Mary MacAdam is the only Heritage representative, coming from Trinity Classical Academy, while freshman Alexis Mirzayan rounds off the group of Santa Claritans, having attended Learning Post.

“A lot of us were rivals, like West Ranch and Valencia and Hart and all that,” said sophomore Nicole Villarta. “I think it’s nice that everyone’s becoming friends and stuff. In high school, people hate each other because of the school. Now, we’re all closer because we play together and spend more time together.”

Una Stanisavljevic calmly hits the ball back to her opponent at College of the Canyons. // Photo courtesy Jesse Munoz/COC Sports Information

Villarta spent her high school tennis career at Valencia.

Things are different for most of these girls, now. A lot of them enjoy having people they know from tennis on their team, whether or not they used to compete against each other.

“It’s really fun. It’s like a new team with people you already know,” said freshman Jennifer Russell. “One of the girls, Taylor (Cohen), we went to preschool together, so it’s really weird seeing her again, playing against her and now we’re on the same team. That’s just really fun for me because you get to rekindle friendships.”

Russell and Cohen may have a long history together, but it wasn’t always one where they worked together. Russell was a star player at Hart, while Cohen utilized her talents as a competitor for Valencia.

However, past rivalries don’t matter anymore, especially now that they have a common goal. To achieve that goal, they will need to work together.

“It’s really fun to have everyone play together and get along,” said sophomore Una Stanisavljevic, a West Ranch graduate. “We don’t have a lot of drama here. So, everyone’s just having a good time all the time. It’s nice to compete when once we were rivals.”

COC women’s tennis head coach Patty LaBat coaches her players at College of the Canyons. // Photo courtesy Jesse Munoz/COC Sports Information

Even though COC is a community college, it is still very rare to have a team made up almost entirely of girls from the community. Head coach Patty LaBat knows this and believes it is a blessing herself.

According to her, most of the girls in Santa Clarita typically go to a four-year school right away, rather than getting their general classes out of the way at COC. Alternatively, the girls she has on her team now are still smart, maintaining a 3.5 team GPA, but made the decision to stay home and leave for a university once their general education is complete.

Another large part of LaBat’s ability to wrangle girls out of her own backyard was her presence around all of the high schools in the area. She is known around the valley for being a private coach to some of the players in the area. She also attended their matches, giving her a chance to scout all the Santa Clarita schools.

“She would come to some of the tennis matches between the Foothill schools,” Russell said. “She would introduce herself and everything. It was really comfortable.”

LaBat believes that her presence around these girls while they were in high school helped her gain rapport with them and influenced them to play for her at COC.

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“I think it’s huge. I did coach at Hart for a couple years way back and I do give a lot of private lessons to those girls and a lot of the girls in the community,” she said. “I go and watch their high school matches and I know them personally. We just chat about what COC is.”

She also believes another key aspect to landing some of Santa Clarita’s best talent was that Hart was in the process of renovating its tennis courts last year. As a result, the Indians played all of their home games at COC, which also brought all the other teams in the league to campus.

“I got to see everybody in the valley when they were playing here,” LaBat said. “Then they saw us at practice because we were practicing when they were all coming and ready to warm up. They saw all the good hitting we had. It was a good advertisement for the program.”

Jennifer Russell is locked in as she returns the ball at College of the Canyons. // Photo courtesy Jesse Munoz/COC Sports Information

Obviously, the advertisement paid off, as the girls have come together to create the Western State Conference’s most dangerous tennis teams. The Cougars boast a 9-2 record with five games remaining in the regular season.

A strong record combined with a roster of hometown girls really speaks to the strength of tennis in the Santa Clarita Valley. The future of tennis in the area is in good hands.

“Santa Clarita tennis is amazing,” Russell said. “We just have so many good girls coming through the high schools.”

Stanisavljevic agreed with her new teammate, attributing the success to the schools and their mentors when they were in high school.

“We have to thank our coaches for that. For giving us a strong mentality and pushing us to always do the best we can do,” Stanisavljevic said.

The Cougars return to the court today. They will face Santa Barbara at Santa Barbara City College in an attempt to avenge their first loss of the season. The match will begin at 2 p.m.

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