In 2018, the San Dieguito Academy girls’ tennis team turned in perhaps the finest season in school history, racking up a 19-3-3 record en route to an unexpected berth in the CIF Open Division Championship match where the Mustangs lost to Canyon Crest. That roster included just three seniors, only one who was a regular in the starting lineup.
Despite the surprise departure of its No. 1 singles player, San Dieguito is off to a solid start in 2019 and just last Wednesday, rolled past always tough Coronado, 12-6. Last year, Coronado handed SDA one of just two regular season defeats before SDA returned the favor in the first round of the CIF Playoffs.
One of the standouts during last year’s run to the title match and now a senior with big dreams for this fall’s squad is Encinitas native Kennedy Urcelay. The 5-foot-3, 17-year-old Urcelay took up tennis after she and her non-tennis playing parents took a lesson together over at San Dieguito Tennis Club when she was eight.
A four-year member of the SDA squad, she’s in her second season pairing with fellow senior Lauren Bear as the No. 1 doubles unit for veteran Coach Joe Tomasi’s Mustangs. He rates her not only a sound technician on the court but possessive of the determination and grit that separates top players and teams in big moments.
“Kennedy’s singular trait is the fact that she’s just mentally tough,” says Tomasi. “She doesn’t let anything bother her—I’ve never seen her break.
“Her ground strokes are solid, her serving has improved a ton and the combination of her and Lauren as our top doubles team provides us with great senior leadership.”
In the aftermath of the victory over Coronado, Urcelay took time to talk about last year’s stirring march to the CIF finals, her view of the team’s prospects for a repeat visit and the role tennis has played in her high school career.
Q—Before you and your parents “discovered” tennis, had you been involved with any other sports? What made tennis something you’ve stuck with for a decade?
URCELAY—I had done horseback riding and gymnastics when I was younger. I stopped riding when I started playing tennis.
I loved the aspect of tennis that you could play on a team but also compete as an individual. There were individual tournaments on the weekend but you had the team that you could hang out with and bond with. I also like the way tennis is a sport where you have to be very well-rounded in terms of technique, court movement and all sorts of things.
Q—In retrospect, how would you capsulize last year’s SDA accomplishments?
URCELAY—It was interesting that the year before we had finished second in the CIF Division I Championships, so coming back, our goal was to win that tournament (D-I)—that was our focus. I was proud of how everyone came in at the beginning ready to fight for every point, every match and give it everything we could.
The outcome wasn’t exactly what we’d planned but we ended up moving up a Division, which was even better than we’d planned. Personally, I thought it was really cool that after all the work we’d put in, it led us somewhere, the Open Division championship, where we were paired with all of the best teams in San Diego. Knowing I’d played a part in that was gratifying.
Q—What was the most exciting moment for you?
URCELAY—Probably when we beat Bishop’s on their courts in the semi-final. Depending on how we did, we were either going to be out of the tournament or in the championship match. It was so close and actually came down to a set score tiebreaker. All of us were sitting on the adjacent court watching the last match. It kept going back-and-forth and we were so stressed. When Leko Ritchie and Amber Tse finally ended up winning, it was the best feeling in the world. We all jumped up and started hugging each other.
Q—How has last year’s performance affected your team’s preparations and mind-set heading into this year?
URCELAY—Everyone’s confidence has been boosted because we’ve seen what we’re capable of, individually and collectively. I know not everyone thought we could get as far as we did last year but because we did, we know that as long as we work hard and push with everything we have to do, it’s possible to get there again.
I don’t think we necessarily have to do a lot differently. We played well throughout the season last year so we know we were doing the right things.
Q—Your top singles player, Indya Nespor, opted to skip the high school season to play academy tennis overseas. What were your feelings about that and how has the team responded?
URCELAY—I don’t know how the entire team feels about it, but I’m really sad that she’s left the team. She’s one of my good friends and was a great asset to the team as a person and a player.
But, there’s not much we can do about it now. She’s gone. We still have an amazing group of girls and know we can get where we want to go with the players we have. Everyone is working that much harder to make it happen.
Q—You’re essentially a doubles specialist at SDA. Do you like doubles more than singles and what can you share about the chemistry you have with Lauren Bear?
URCELAY—I’ve played both but now I enjoy doubles more. I like having a partner to talk with about strategy and being able to take advantage of each other’s energy.
Lauren and I make a really good doubles team. We’re best friends off the court, so we have the communication thing down, verbally and non-verbally. We’re both super-extroverted. She knows what I’m going to do and vice-versa. Like anyone else, we can get frustrated at times but it’s always just on to the next point.
When I’m out there, I know it’s not just about me. I think about how I’m playing with my partner and work as hard as I can to make sure I’m not letting her down.
Q—As a senior, is there a sense of finality that comes along with this season?
URCELAY—For sure. Since this is my last year, I really want to make it count—do the best I can at everything I’m doing, on and off the court.
It makes me sad thinking about this being my last year at SDA. Tennis has been one of the best experiences of my high school career. It’s going to be difficult graduating and leaving it all behind.
I didn’t know a lot of people when I came here and having tennis as a fall sport from the beginning was really important. I met my best friend on the team and it kind of shaped high school after that.
Q—Is there something you know now that you wish you would have known as a freshman?
URCELAY—Definitely. The seniors told us as freshman to “enjoy high school because it goes by so fast.” I heard that a lot but didn’t really believe it. Now here I am as a senior and that time has gone by in the blink of an eye. I can’t believe how quickly it passed.
Q—You have a 4.1 GPA at San Dieguito; what are your plans for college?
URCELAY—I want to stay in California but I don’t have anything confirmed yet. I’d like to go to Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo). I toured it a few weeks ago and it’s amazing.
Major-wise, I know I want to go into business. My goal in life is to be a CEO of a company and I’m interested in the concept of business entrepreneurship. I also plan to minor is psychology and maybe Spanish as well. I like Spanish as well as the culture.
Q—With school, tennis and a job, you keep pretty busy. What do you like to do when you have some spare time?
URCELAY—I like art—I paint and draw my moods. I also like water sports like wakeboarding and jet skiing. I guess you could say like outdoor activities in general. I enjoy ATV riding and off-roading in my jeep with my dad.
Q—What are three things you’d like to accomplish before you graduate from SDA?
URCELAY—I’m the vice president of the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and I really want to help expand it. It’s something that a lot of people suffer from and being able to further raise awareness with the underclass students and take away some of the stigma associated with it would be impactful.
I definitely want to get into college. With all the things like applications and essays, it’s kind of stressful. I’d like to have that out of the way.
I also want to win a championship with the tennis team. We’ve gotten two second place finishes. We’ve been so close.
Starting with seniors like Lauren (Bear) and super consistent singles player Lauren Rose, as well as Lauren’s sister JoJo (Jessica Bear), our talented sophomore at No. 1 singles, we have a team that has energy, great chemistry and tries their hardest all the time. There is no give up. We have the ability to make it happen and I think that would be a great ending to high school tennis for me.