With eight returning starters, the Sage Hill School girls' tennis team appears to have a good chance to claim its third straight Academy League title this season.
Add in five talented incoming freshmen, and the Lightning just appear to have an embarrassment of riches.
They are Isabella Deckey, Maya Byrd, Stephanie Beder, Melissa Heard and Nataly Shayan Smith. The class of 2018 has arrived for the Lightning.
The only head coach the program has ever known, A.G. Longoria, knows that this is a special class. He said it's the most talented freshman class at Sage in more than a decade, since Sarah Geocaris, Stephanie Langer and Alle Hsu started their Lightning careers in 2003-04.
It's not to put pressure on the current freshmen, but Longoria knows all that class accomplished. For four straight years, Sage made at least the CIF semifinals, winning the program's only CIF championship in 2005-06 in Division 5.
Now Longoria sees this year's freshmen ready to compete for an already seasoned team. Byrd, from Irvine, is projected to play at No. 3 singles. Deckey, from Laguna Beach, projects to play at No. 1 doubles with senior Tess Alexander. And Beder, a Newport Beach resident, could play at No. 2 doubles with junior Marina Anderson.
Jaclyn Gerschultz, a junior who was the Academy League singles MVP last year, sees nothing but good things in this infusion of youth for the Lightning.
"They can play singles or doubles," Gerschultz said. "They're going to make a large impact, definitely. We're really excited ... they come in with a lot of experience. They know how to handle themselves.
"There's definitely more competition, because everyone wants to get the top spots on varsity. It makes us better, definitely."
Deckey, Byrd and Beder are experienced tournament players. Byrd, a lefty, smiled as she said that she's not really used to winning. It's not that way when she trains at the Woodbridge Tennis Club, which has produced countless junior tennis standouts in recent years.
"There's a lot of courts at Woodbridge, and I'm always at the bottom courts," she said. "It's just different coming here, and beating people. Down at Woodbridge, I'm always the one getting beat."
Longoria knows that Byrd can beat a lot of people this season. Deckey and Beder were already friends before coming to Sage Hill, since both attended Harbor Day School.
Deckey said the members of the freshman class are ready to make their mark.
"It's really exciting," she said. "Yes, we're nervous, because these girls have been playing with each other for a couple of years now. Coming in as new freshmen, we don't know the team as well as they do, but I feel like it's such an opportunity. They've had the experience. And Sage is a really welcoming, nice school. I don't think any of them gave us a hard time."
Quite the contrary. In some ways these freshmen are making the upperclassmen step up their game, said Sage senior Amira Tarsadia, who played at No. 2 singles last year.
"It's making us all work harder, seeing these freshmen come in and being so strong," Tarsadia said. "I think we're going to be a lot stronger than last year. To go back to the finals would be good. When I was freshman, we went to the CIF finals, and I just want to be back."
There's a lot of work to be done first. The Lightning would love to win the outright league title, after sharing it last year with rival St. Margaret's and Oxford Academy.
And a challenging preseason includes tournaments hosted by Sage Hill on each of the four weekends in September — the Lightning Invitational (Sept. 5-6), Compass Invitational (Sept. 12-13), Prep Classic (Sept. 19-20) and Coast Cup (Sept. 26-27).
But the freshmen are OK with this.
"If you want to succeed, then you have to put in the hours," Beder said.