Aptos High senior Tiana Smith knew it would be an uphill battle going into the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League Tennis Championships as the No. 4 seed in the singles bracket.
On Wednesday, she defied all odds on her way to a league championship after beating No. 2 seed Francesca Garces of Santa Cruz in straight sets (6-4, 6-3) at Imperial Courts Tennis Club in Aptos.
“[I’m] on top of the world,” Smith said. “I went into the tournament kind of expecting to lose the second round because I was playing Isla, and then I ended up winning. [I] went in with excitement, came out with just joy of being here and all these amazing players I get to play.”
Smith wound up being the dark horse and found a way to take out top seed Isla Garcia-McDougall of Soquel High on Tuesday, capped off by her finals win over Garces the following day.
“I just felt extremely overjoyed that I’d beat [Garcia-McDougall],” Smith said. “And then I had to remind myself not to get too confident or too cocky, because that’s how you lose. Just getting too much confidence and underestimating the other one.”
Aptos coach Tammi Brown met Smith last season when she was an exhibition player and saw her steadily improve in 2022.
“I told her last year she has the heart of a lion,” Brown said. “The match she played yesterday was incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her play as well as she played yesterday. She stepped it up huge.”
Brown said Smith had to bring some of the same mental and physical resources to Wednesday’s championship match.
Garces’ powerful left-handed swing allowed her to get some hard shots off, giving Smith a bit of trouble in the second set.
“I went with my coach’s advice, just get one more ball over than she does,” Smith said. “Just get the ball back over the net as many times as you need to, that was kind of my strategy, just keep pushing until one of us drops.”
Garces also had some clean winners to the corners that Smith had no chance of getting and amazing drop shots that Smith was stumbling to get.
“There’s a momentum swing in sports and when she started winning, I just had to say to myself, ‘Don’t let it scare you, just keep pushing, keep going through it,’” Smith said. “And I feel like just the ability to hold strong against your enemy just makes you able to triumph.”
In the opening round of singles action, Garcia-McDougall defeated Santa Cruz senior Sasha Wolfsen (6-2, 6-0).
Garces beat San Lorenzo Valley senior Alyssa Struthers (6-1, 6-0), while Aptos High sophomore Aviana Andrews upset No. 3 seed Stella Cheney of Scotts Valley in straight sets (6-4, 6-3).
Smith defeated SLV senior Abi Krepelka (6-0, 6-1) in the first round and went on to upset Garcia-McDougall in the day’s lone three-set (6-4, 4-6, [10-6]) tiebreaker.
Garces beat Andrews 6-1, 6-2 to advance to Wednesday’s championship match where she met Smith in the finals.
The Mariners’ mighty duo in Holly Hegna and Coral Collins won (6-4, 7-5) in their doubles final, holding off No. 2 seed Sofia Niklaus and Erin Szymanski of Scotts Valley High in two dramatic sets filled with action.
“I think we’re feeling good right now,” Collins said. “During the match, it might have been a little different. First set I think was a little bit more stressful for the both of us but after that I think we’re kind of just like, ‘OK, let’s finish this.’”
At one point, Hegna and Collins were down 3-0 in the second set and on the verge of going down by four games.
“The dreaded second set letdown,” Brown said. “We talk about that a lot in tennis because when you win the first set, sometimes it’s an adrenaline letdown because you’ve got that first set. You can’t do that.”
Down 40-love, the Mariners duo—who have been buddies since middle school—regrouped and never looked back.
“Definitely had times where we were anxious,” Hegna said. “But our good spirits, our personal connection, brought us up.”
Hegna and Collins defeated SLV’s duo of Gabby Jubinveille and Hannah Morley (6-1, 6-0) in the first round of doubles action, followed by a 6-1, 6-3 win over Ali Pierson and Lou Ellis of Santa Cruz High.
Aptos went into the league tournament with an undefeated record of 8-0 in SCCAL play, followed by Santa Cruz (5-3), Scotts Valley (5-3), Soquel (2-6) and SLV (0-8).
“We definitely just worked hard as a team and just inspired each other,” Hegna said. “We started practicing pretty early just even with team bonding and bonding outside of tennis and I think that’s what brought us closer.”
Next up, the Mariners will compete in the Central Coast Section playoffs starting with the Girls Tennis Team Championships on Nov. 6. The section’s singles championships begin Nov. 13, followed by the doubles championships Nov. 14.
“CCS is always really hard but it’s really cool to see such stiff competition and just be able to go into it knowing that you’re just gonna give it your all,” Smith said. “No matter what happens you played your best.”