The Nogales High School girls tennis team battled the wind and the Flowing Wells Caballeros on Tuesday to win their 2021 home opener.
The Apaches took all six singles matches, plus the three doubles contests, to win 9-0 and raise their record to 2-0 following a season-opening win over Rincon/University on March 17 in Tucson.
The NHS girls team, perennial qualifiers for the Division II state tournament, won two of their first three matches last year before the coronavirus pandemic ended their season. Four of the top six players on that team graduated in 2020, meaning there are plenty of new faces on this year’s varsity squad.
The 2021 season got off to a late start after the Arizona Interscholastic Association adjusted high school sports schedules in response to the pandemic, and that gave head coach Kerri Muñoz only about a dozen practices before the first match of the season.
The shortened pre-season “made it very very difficult to figure out my lineup – I’m still trying to figure out my lineup, to tell you the truth,” said Muñoz, who is assisted in coaching the team by her mother Cindy Grimm.
Through the first two matches of the season, the lineup has featured junior Vanya Gupta in the No. 1 singles spot.
The daughter of an NHS teacher, she’s a newcomer to the program, having transferred from Rio Rico High School at the start of the year to take advantage of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Nogales High, Muñoz said.
Gupta didn’t play at RRHS, which doesn’t have a tennis team, but she has plenty of experience playing in tournaments and won a challenge match to earn the top singles spot with Nogales.
Nicolette Fajardo, the team’s senior captain, is in the No. 2 singles spot, moving up from No. 3 last year and No. 4 during her sophomore season. She plays a lot in the offseason and takes lessons, which contributes to her development.
Muñoz said Fajardo used to be content to return shots. “Now she’s more aggressive at net, her serve has improved tremendously – she has a wicked serve,” the coach said.
Senior Yashika Shaju, last year’s No. 6 player, jumped to No. 3 to start the 2021 season.
Her freshman year was her first year of competitive tennis, but by her junior year, she had already moved up to the varsity level.
“She’s fairly new to the game. She’s kind of a natural player,” Muñoz said, adding: “She’s an all-around player – she can play singles and doubles and she’s very coachable.”
No. 4 Daniela Del Grande is back with the team after missing the 2020 season with an injury.
“Even though she was injured for a year, she’s come back and she’s really happy to be on the court. You can just tell, she’s a very positive person, she’s a very positive player,” Muñoz said, adding that an opposing coach had commented positively on Del Grande’s confidence on the court.
Sofia Durazo, last year’s top junior varsity singles player, moves up to the No. 5 singles position on the varsity team to start the 2021 season. She’s seeded even higher on the doubles side, where she teams up with Del Grande.
“Daniela and Sofia play doubles together because they’re really good friends. They’re best friends and they work really well together, so I have them playing No. 2 doubles,” Muñoz said.
Other doubles pairings include Gupta and Fajardo at No. 1, and Shaju and sophomore Martha Sofia Armendariz in the No. 3 position.
Armendariz is also the No. 6 singles player, and Muñoz is looking forward to seeing what she can do with the opportunity.
“Martha was going to do great things for me last year as a freshman, and then we really – especially the JV – really didn’t get to compete that much last year,” the coach said.
Armendariz wasn’t available for the team’s first match in Tucson, so senior Nancy Buelna stepped in at No. 6 and played a decisive role in the Apaches’ 5-4 victory. She won 6-2, 8-6 in No. 6 singles, then teamed up with Shaju in No. 3 doubles to win 8-3.
“She had a really tough match against Rincon and really helped us with the match,” Muñoz said of Buelna. “She’s never played varsity tennis before, so she had to step up.”
Roster depth is one of the Apaches’ strengths this season.
“They’re all very good tennis players. I have 16 girls total, and every single one of them knows how to play tennis,” Muñoz said, adding: “I’m excited about my JV girls because they can come up and give these varsity girls a run for their money.”
Nogales is set to play at Salpointe on Thursday. They'll take on Douglas at home on Tuesday, March 30.