By Justin Vigil-Zuniga
Signal Sports Writer
College of the Canyons women’s tennis (13-2, 12-0) earned its first perfect season, going undefeated in conference play for the first time in school history.
The team won a record 12 straight matches to help earn its first Western State Conference in its long awaited return to the courts.
The Cougars’ season would come to an end in the first round of the CCCAA Southern California Regionals. The team lost 6-3 to College of the Desert in the program’s first playoff match.
Canyons head coach Patty Labat knew her team would be strong coming into the 2021-22 season but knew nothing would come easy with the stiff competition in the WSC.
“I hoped all the players would have fun, develop their game and play well,” said Labat. “Based on that, this season was a tremendous success.”
The Cougars lost two of their first three games in tight contests, dropping 5-4 to two talented teams in Orange Coast and Sequoias College.
The team then caught fire in their 12-game win streak through some great tennis in their first collegiate tennis action since 2020. All athletics were shut down for a year and a half during the pandemic. The team would not resume any training until athletics were greenlit again in the fall of 2021.
“College athletics is a year-round endeavor,” said COC Athletic Director Chad Peters. “I believe a huge part of the success we had this year is how hard the team worked in the fall preparing for the spring. From August to December, the hours of instruction, training, conditioning, and competing with one another, the team was primed and ready for the competitive season in January. They started strong and never looked back!”
No. 2 Lexi Paunovic and No. 3 Jennifer Russell both finished their seasons 11-2 in singles. The two were awarded all-conference honors in singles for their strong seasons.
No. 3 doubles Hannah Heiber and Lauren Neal finished 12-2 while No. 2 Lauren Hannah and Russell notched a 8-3 record, showcasing the depth of the Canyons team.
The Hannah and Russell duo were also awarded first team all-conference honors.
“We had great balance. A lot of the other teams had outstanding players at the top, but fell off further down the lineup,” said Labat. “We were just more even from top to bottom.”
Russell and Heiber also took home first-team honors in doubles.
Valencia alumna Ashley Villarta finished 6-10 against the best in the No. 1 spot.
Labat’s leadership in her historic season also earned her the WSC coach of the year award, a merit she didn’t expect. Labat thought she was just following the process with a great team as well as having a great assistant coach in Hart alumna Proyfon Lohaphaisan.
The former Indian played Division 1 for Quinnipiac University before joining the coaching staff. Labat was high on Lohaphaisan, saying her assistant was a great resource and contributed greatly to the overall feel of the team.
The season is not over just yet for Villarta and Paunovic. The two will continue their season in the regional/state tournament playing both singles and doubles.
Overall, it was the most successful season in the program’s history and the future looks just as bright as the present. Canyons has just three sophomores and will retain the bulk of its roster heading into the 2023 season as the team will have their first chance to defend their crown.
“I am extremely excited for the future of women’s tennis here at College of the Canyons,” said Peters. “Coach Labat is just getting started.”