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Juan Montanez eyes his shot during boys’ singles play Wednesday in Albuquerque. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

It’s never easy to prepare for the Class 5A State Tennis Tournament.

With typically more talent across the board than even the Class 6A competition, the state events can feel like a war of attrition for athletes from the southeastern portion of the state.

By now, everyone knows the score: Albuquerque Academy is a private school laden with students who have been competing in tennis year-round – with private instructors – for most of their lives. Schools like Farmington and Los Alamos also have perennially strong programs.

In a place where tennis doesn’t have that kind of popularity and available resources, keeping pace is virtually impossible.

At the same time, however, state competition tends to have a levelling effect on the playing field. Pressure, emotion, inspiration, fatigue… all of these can play a role, and all can – and have – produce upsets in the unlikeliest of scenarios.

Above and below, doubles partners Za’Leigh Pittam and Andrea Alvarez compete. (Photos Courtesy Daana Pittam)

The five athletes Artesia High School sent to the Class 5A State Individual Tournament Wednesday by no means took the court with a cavalier attitude toward the task at hand. And while their results varied, their performances were solid overall.

Bulldog senior Juan Montanez came the closest to advancing to the quarterfinal round Wednesday afternoon at Albuquerque Academy. Montanez was clearly capable of competing with his singles opponent, Alamogordo’s Keanu Tran, but unforced errors came back to plague him in a 5-7, 5-7 loss.

“Juan’s match was real close,” head coach Tim Trentham said Saturday. “He was up 5-3 in both of those tie-breakers, so he had a really good opportunity to win. It just didn’t play out that way.

“That was his first state match ever, and it’s pretty tough when you don’t have that experience and don’t understand wat the pressure is going to be like when you’re competing at a whole new level. I think, in the end, that’s what got him. It’s just one of those moments where you have to be ready to put the match away, and he kind of let it slip through his fingers a little bit.”

The Lady Bulldogs were represented Wednesday by two doubles teams, whose matches were twice interrupted by rain delays.

Dominique Sanchez and Michelle Greene found themselves squaring off against the top-ranked duo in the competition – Farmington’s Monica Briones and Arin Coleman – and were simply outmatched, falling 0-6, 0-6.

“There wasn’t a whole lot they could do there, but they competed hard,” said Trentham. “Unfortunately, I don’t think Michelle’s going to be returning next year; she’s going into the DECA program, but it was good for Nikki to see what the state competition is like so she can be that much more prepared next year.”

Za’Leigh Pittam and Andrea Alvarez, however, had a solid chance against also-unranked Alexis Acosta and Christine Bui of St. Pius but were thrown off their game a bit by the interruptions, dropping the match 4-6, 2-6.

“They had a really tight first set and were down 5-4 on serve, and then we had a rain delay,” Trentham said. “They came back on and lost the set, then got in the first two games of the second set before the rain delay, and that one lasted 45 minutes. When we went back on, they didn’t really give anybody time to warm up because they were too worried about it raining again, so I think we just got completely taken out of the rhythm of the match.

“The second set was not indicative of what those two had done up to that point. You just find yourself in a hole, go off, come back on, the hole gets deeper, and before you know it, the match is over. But that was also their first experience at state, so now they’re going to be able to build on that for next year and continue to grow. Next year, they’ll be mentally ready and know what to expect.”

Dominique Sanchez, above, and Michelle Greene, below battle during girls’ doubles play. (Photos Courtesy Daana Pittam)

For a girls’ team that started out the 2018 campaign with precious little varsity experience, Trentham says he was pleased overall with this year’s Lady Bulldogs.

“Aside from Za’Leigh and Andrea, everybody was new to varsity,” said the coach. “And our No. 6 player by the end of the year, Jennifer Rios, was complete new to tennis. So to finish like we did on the girls’ side, I was pleased. I know it was frustrating for them at times, but like we told them at the beginning of the season, we were kind of in a two-year plan. We knew we were going to take some lumps this year, but we also knew that would help us get stronger for next year.”

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, had some experienced senior talent back on the court in 2018 but weren’t quite able to realize their full potential after missing out on the state team tournament.

“It would have been nice to finish a little better team-wise than we did, and it’s going to be very difficult to adjust from this year to next on the boys’ side, because we’re losing some very good leadership with Juan and Jesus (Valdez),” said Trentham. “They’ve just been outstanding kids, outstanding players, and outstanding leaders.

“We’ve got some youth coming back, which is good, because sometimes that can really give you the hunger to be successful. But on the flip side of that, we lose so much that what we bring back is going to be very inexperienced.”

In addition to Montanez and Valdez, the ‘Dogs will also bid farewell to senior Caleb Carnathan.

“Caleb really kind of blossomed a little bit more this season than some of the other guys,” said Trentham. “In terms of sheer improvement from the beginning of the season to the end, I think he was probably the standout.”

The Lady ‘Dogs, meanwhile, will lose one senior to graduation in Samera Hernandez.

“Samera just had an outstanding competitiveness that shown through all season,” said Trentham. “She started off at No. 2 this season and worked her way up to No. 1, and that was just a testament to her work ethic and her determination.

“Her willingness to work was really her strongest characteristic, and it helped her get to where she wanted to be. She knew what she wanted and she fought for it, and we’ll miss that spirit on our team next year.”

The Artesia High School squads will return a number of young athletes, however, and will be counting on them to step up their game, particularly in light of district and classification realignments that will see NMMI and Portales replace Roswell in District 4 next year.

“Next year, our class is just going to be loaded to the max,” said Trentham. “Albuquerque Academy, Hope Christian, Farmington, NMMI, Robertson, St. Michael’s – it’s about to get crazy in tennis, so we’re going to have to be ready to compete.

“But we always have really good kids on our teams. And that’s what we’re in this business for – not for championships but for being able to watch these kids grow, and for the seniors, seeing them finally get to the point where we know they’re going to go off and do good things beyond the sport in their personal lives.”