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by Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
There was singing on the bus that carried the Menlo School boys' tennis team to and from dinner on Saturday night. The music, however, wasn't coming from the radio. It was coming from the Knights, and probably not the quality that will land any of them on "American Idol" any time soon.
But, it didn't really matter if anyone was off key as they sang "We Are The Champions" by Queen. (We are the champions - my friends / And we'll keep on fighting - till the end - ... We are the champions / No time for losers / 'Cause we are the champions ...)
The players, after all, were just having fun and enjoying themselves after accomplishing something never achieved by any Menlo School athletic team in history.
On Saturday, after finishing off top-seeded University (Irvine), 5-3, in the finals of the 11th annual National High School All-American Boys Invitational Team Tournament at the Palisades Tennis Club in Newport Beach, the Knights were crowned kings of the prep tennis world.
By winning the two-day, 16-team tournament that attracted teams from Arizona, Idaho, New York, North Carolina and Washington state, Menlo earned the title of national champion in the USTA-sanctioned event.
Prior to last season, a tournament held in Mason, Ohio, held that distinction. That event since has been cancelled, making the Newport Beach tourney the "official" national championship for boys' tennis – if for no other reason than there is no event like it elsewhere.
Menlo coach Bill Shine, however, put things in perspective for his players.
"I told the kids they can't really validate it unless they go undefeated," Shine said.
The only other Central Coast Section (or Northern California) team to win the Newport Beach event was Sacred Heart Prep, which traveled to Mason for the then-national championship and won that, too. The Gators, however, were upset in the CCS semifinals that season and failed to reach the NorCal playoffs, finishing with a 26-1 record.
Menlo (11-0) now has the opportunity for a clean sweep for the first time ever. That chance seems even better since the Knights toppled their toughest CCS competitor, Saratoga, in the semifinals on Saturday, 5-3.
"I feel good going up against anybody now," Shine said. "To beat the No. 1 team (University) in the nation and the defending champion says it all. This is definitely the best achievement of my coaching career."
This is Shine's 31st year of coaching and the 15th at Menlo. While this team already appears to be his best (there's still plenty of season left), it's also very young with two freshmen in the starting lineup that includes only two seniors among the top four singles. The key to this team, aside from its considerable talent, is its depth.
That depth played out in the five singles and three doubles matches each day as Menlo went 4-0. The Knights opened with a 7-1 victory over Beacon School of New York City before downing Beverly Hills High, 6-2, to reach the semifinals against No. 3-seeded Saratoga.
Menlo got a victory at No. 5 singles from freshman Andrew Ball, but lost the next two matches before freshman Richard Pham rallied to win and senior Patrick Chase rallied from being down match point to force a tiebreaker and eventually win. Despite trailing early in all three doubles matches, Menlo survived to win twice and wrap up the victory.
Against University, the heavy favorite to defend, Menlo opened play by losing two of the three doubles matches. That meant the Knights had to win at least three of the five singles matches just to tie and hope they had enough games won overall to win the tiebreaker and tournament.
That scenario wasn't needed as Menlo won four of the five singles matches, despite the fact University had two players ranked among the nation's top 10 in their age brackets. The match came down to the final two matches with sophomore Justin Chan and senior Jamin Ball still playing. At that point, Menlo had enough games won to win the tiebreaker and the tourney. All it needed was one victory.
With all eyes on Ball, who was playing on the stadium center court, the senior responded with an 8-5 victory to clinch the title. His teammates rushed onto the court to celebrate, with Chan winning moments later, 8-5, for the final point. Chan also played No. 2 doubles with Andrew Carlisle.
"It was fitting that Jamin won it, with him being a senior and on the stadium court," said Shine. "It was pretty exciting. Everyone contributed to the championship . . . It was a total team effort . . . They all had an important role.
"I was very impressed on how they handled everything," Shine said. "They played unbelievably well."
Freshman Andrew Ball was the only Menlo players to go 8-0 (four singles, four doubles wins) while Jamin and Chase, who were doubles partners, went 7-1. Jamin Ball, Chase and Pham all earned All-America honors by being named to the all-tournament team. It was Ball's third such honor while Chase and Pham earned their first.
Bellarmine Prep finished fifth in the tourney while Saratoga took third. Both teams will challenge Menlo when the CCS playoffs get under way in early May. Defending their CCS and NorCal titles are now the goals for the Knights, who will host Monte Vista (Danville) on Wednesday in what should be yet another good test for the big ones yet to come.