The window to succeed as a youth tennis player is small. It’s a young person’s sport, and it’s common for young nationally ranked players to be home schooled in order to concentrate their efforts on the court.

That’s not the case for Bella Nguyen, Ava Deguzman and Eryn Cayetano, the three best high school girls’ tennis players in Long Beach. They all took very different paths to playing for local schools this season, and this month they have chances to add CIF Southern Section playoff success to their already impressive resumes.

St. Anthony’s Eryn Cayetano, left, Long Beach Poly’s Ava Deguzman, center, and Wilson’s Bella Nguyen, right, are the three top tennis players in Long Beach. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova

Bella Nguyen

It only took a few months for Nguyen to write her name in the Wilson High history books after moving from College Station, Texas, to California this summer. Her parents, who fled Vietnam after the war, wanted to move closer to family, but Nguyen needed some convincing.

“I was a little bit defiant about moving,” Nguyen said. “I grew up in Texas, and thought that was my home. I wasn’t open to new experiences, but I’m very thankful that I came here to open up my perspective. Once I got here everyone was super welcoming and generous. Coach McBride is the sweetest coach I’ve ever met.”

Wilson coach Keri McBride was ecstatic to welcome Nguyen to her team. Nguyen has a Universal Tennis Rating of 9.1, which makes her an elite player in her age group.

“She’s not only good but she’s also gracious and humble,” McBride said of Nguyen. “She’s just endeared herself to this team, and the other girls are raising their game because she’s something they can aspire to.”

Nguyen grew up in a tennis family and leaned to play against her brother, Chad, who is three years older.“

What got me liking tennis was beating my older brother,” Nguyen said. “It’s a sibling rivalry that we have. We kind of played for fun, but once I started beating him it became more serious.”

With a natural feel and passion for the game, Nguyen had a strong baseline attack and hit a big ball. He said that footwork really helped her develop into a more powerful player. It all came together when she went to high school where her aggressive style helped her ascend the rankings quickly, and a loss in the Texas state playoffs became her motivation.“

I was playing against a girl I admired, and I never thought I’d be able to play the level I did that day,” Nguyen remembers. “I had match points, and my team was tied 9-9, but I ended up losing and I was so heartbroken. I always told myself that everything happens for a reason, and I kind of was relived that when I was playing in the Moore League championship.”

Last month, Nguyen beat Ava Deguzman in the league singles championship match at Billie Jean King Courts. Deguzman handed Nguyen her first set loss in a first set tiebreaker, but Nguyen bounced back to take the next two sets 6-2, 6-0 and win the title.“

It was freeing,” Nguyen said of the win. “When my team rushed over to hug me I started crying. It was an amazing experience.”

“We haven’t seen that caliber of tennis in many years,” McBride said. “This is awesome for the Moore League.”

Nguyen said her goal all along has been to use tennis as a way to get into the universities she wants to attend. The senior plans to get a bachelors degree in government and take that into law school, but she also wants to continue playing tennis in college.“

I love playing for a team and something that matters more than myself,” Nguyen.

Wilson (20-3) fell in the CIF-SS Division 3 semifinals at Laguna Beach on Wednesday.

Ava Deguzman

Poly High’s PACE is the most challenging magnet program in the city, but that hasn’t stopped Deguzman from excelling in the classroom, and on the tennis court. The sophomore won the league singles title last year, and repeated as doubles champion this season with partner Kate Johnson.

“I just have to put my phone away,” Deguzman said of her time management. “Especially after practice when I’m already dead physically, I just have to get to it mentally. The Poly PACE teachers are amazing and they help me though a lot of it. They understand I play a lot of tennis and will extend my deadlines if I need it. They’re just always there for me, and that’s a big part of it.”

Deguzman enjoys studying math, and wants to be an engineer when she grows up, but the diminutive sophomore still has a lot of tennis left to play at Poly. The Jackrabbits (23-1) suffered their first loss of the season in the CIF-SS Division 2 semifinals on Wednesday.

“Everyone played unbelievably this season, and it just showed the hard work and time everyone has put in,” Deguzman said. “When we’re playing there’s just so much team spirit, even our subs motivate us so much. That’s just a great aspect of playing on a team.”

Deguzman’s parents are from the Philippines, but she grew up in Long Beach where she attended Minnie Gant Elementary and Stanford Middle School. Her older sister, Miranda, got her into dance and ballet at a young age, but Deguzman eventually chose to pursue tennis with her dad, Dan, and other sister, Dyanna.

“I’ve always been a naturally athletic kid who just wants to run around and play for fun,” Deguzman said. “That helped me figure out my game as I grew up. My footwork and just always keeping on my toes was a great benefit from dance.”

That natural energy helped Deguzman become a frustrating opponent because she works so hard to stay in every point. She said getting tournament experience helped her trust herself more over time, but that her small stature was something that needed to be overcome.

“It is a disadvantage, but not so much that it brings you down,” Deguzman said. “I use my speed to compensate. I can get power from getting set early with a lot of discipline and preparation. It comes from the legs a lot.”

Deguzman added that the dedication from her family is the biggest reason she’s found success on and off of the court at Poly.

“We all invest a lot of time into this,” Deguzman said. “My dad is always here to help and guide me though my game. He calms me down, especially in tournaments when I’m really anxious. I can always count on him.”

Dan Deguzman said that when his youngest daughter lost in tournaments, but still wanted to come back and play the next day, he knew she and a future in the sport.

“Yeah, I’m a little surprised that she hasn’t given up and persevered,” Dan said. “I just tell her to stay positive, it’s just a game to have fun with and do what you do best… but we don’t play each other. She’ll run me off the court, as little as she is.”

Eryn Cayetano

According to the Tennis Recruiting Network, Cayetano is ranked No. 4 in California, and No. 21 nationally, in her age group. The St. Anthony senior has traveled all over the country to play national events, but never wanted to be home schooled.

“We’ve seen a lot of kids home schooled, and there are a few factors I didn’t like,” Eryn’s dad, Ed Cayetano, said. “I don’t want her to miss her youth. With home school it’s just home and tennis. I want her to socialize and build up her character. I want her to have fun while she is young, and I’m just a dad supporting her.”

Ed wasn’t always just a dad, and coached Eryn on the tennis court from age 7-12.

“He always made sure that I treated him like a coach, and not like a father, on the court,” Cayetano said. “It was hard, because I always forgot. We tried not to take it home, but sometimes it would follow us.”

The Cayetano’s got into one memorable argument after a tournament in Arizona a few years ago. That convinced Ed that it was time to let someone else coach his daughter, and he hasn’t been to one of her matches since then.

“My wife calls me with the result, and win or lose I tell her ‘good job’,” Ed said. “I just want to keep supporting. It’s kind of tough for me, but if she’s enjoying it and it’s working out, so more power to her.”

“When I was little it did wear on our relationship,” Cayetano said of her dad being her coach. “There was times where I wouldn’t even talk to him. But, he understood that it was hurting us, and he put his trust in other coaches. That actually made us grow closer.”

Coach Dave Nowick took over to help Cayetano navigate her junior tennis career, and get her a scholarship offer from USC. Cayetano said she would love to take advantage of an opportunity to play professional tennis, but that her number one priority is getting a degree in human biology. She wants to become a physical therapist.

“I’ve been injured so many times,” Cayetano said. “Knowing how the injury happened, and how to prevent it, really interests me. My sports medicine class at St. Anthony went to the body works exhibit in California Science Center last year, and that made me fall in love with the subject more.”

Cayetano followed her family’s footsteps and enrolled at St. Anthony, but the Saints don’t have a girls’ tennis team, so she started playing golf to get the team experience. She helped the golf team win league this season, and she qualified for CIF-SS golf individuals. However, Cayetano couldn’t compete because she needed to qualify for the CIF-SS individual tennis tournament by winning the Del Rey League title for the fourth consecutive season.

Cayetano, Nguyen and Deguzman will all participate in the CIF-SS individual tournament coming up later this month— an opportunity they wouldn’t have if they weren’t willing to represent their schools and their city.

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