Celeste Garcia transferred from E.C. Central to Wheeler last year, shed tears during her first tennis practice with the Bearcats and felt out of place at No. 1 singles last spring.
Through those trying times, she resolved to remain on the court.
"No way; never; that is crazy," Garcia responded about quitting. "I've given up so much to play. It was tough playing for another team, but I've worked so hard to get here."
Garcia won her first two singles matches this season, but the road to this point was littered with potholes.
Garcia began playing tennis as a freshman E.C. Central. She moved up to No. 3 varsity singles as a sophomore, reportedly winning eight matches. She enjoyed her time with the Cardinals, but other issues forced a change of scenery.
The family's house was broken into, and Garcia felt she was stagnating in the classroom.
"The area we were living in wasn't the best," she said. "School-wise with academics, I wasn't learning; I wasn't going anywhere.
The family moved to an area where she could go either to Hobart or Wheeler. She chose the latter, liking a smaller school with a chance at more one-on-one time with teachers.
Garcia knew she was in a better place, but she originally felt like an outsider.
"(E.C. Central coach Dave Lane) was one of the people I really looked up to; he was always there for me," Garcia said. "That team was like my family.
"I had to find my own space at Wheeler."
Last season, Wheeler No. 1 singles player Shelby Loftus injured her shoulder -- and Garcia was chosen to take over the top spot.
Garcia finished 4-4, but she felt uneasy about the move.
"It was surprising," Garcia said. "The coaches thought I deserved it, but I wasn't 100 percent sure. I could hit the ball back, but I couldn't angle it and place it in spots. I just didn't feel comfortable."
Wheeler coach Mike Rosta thinks Garcia is her own worst critic.
"She was a godsend last year with all of the injuries we dealt with," Rosta said. "She's just a sponge, and she loves the concept of learning new things. I wish we could have had her all four seasons."
One of her strong points now is her serve. Garcia used to hit it flat without any spin. She's been taught to toss the ball out in front more, hit with a slice and get more of angle on the shot. Rosta also believes her backhand, once a weak point, is now better than her forehand.
Garcia, the lone senior on the roster, is now the team's leader. Garcia has gained a sense of belonging, but she's also in a position to show her gratitude.
"I feel like I'm trying to help out the younger players," she said. "No matter who's on the team, I want them to feel welcomed. That's what (past players) did for me."
Holly Santaguida has honed her craft from watching and playing with two of the best tennis players to ever walk onto a high school tennis court in Northwest Indiana.
The Highland junior spent last season teaming with former Trojan Aby Madrigal in No. 1 doubles. Madrigal and her twin sister, Vany, were doubles state champions in 2012. Aby was a two-time doubles champ, picking up her first title in 2011.
"Last year, Aby and Vany were the leaders," Santaguida said. "They definitely were really hard workers and were very dedicated to their game. I wanted to follow that, so I quit basketball just so I could focus mainly on tennis and I could be a better tennis player."
The step up to being the team's leader and No. 1 singles player this season didn't come without an extremely rough bump in the road a few months ago. Santaguida was hospitalized for four days over Thanksgiving due to histamine intolerance, an uncommon allergic reaction. It rendered her unable to play tennis for almost two months -- which was both physically and mentally agonizing.
"It was really tough," Santaguida said. "I really wanted to get better in (the fall). Obstacles do happen, and I'm just trying to recover from it and be stronger. That makes me be a stronger person from what happened."
Highland coach Jordan Heckard knows what kind of talent he has in Santaguida -- a first-team all state selection last season. Five varsity players graduated last season, so Heckard has relied on Santaguida's experience.
"She's very savvy, she's smart," Heckard said. "She reads the player well. She's become a student of the game. She's gotten a lot better at knowing how a point is going to unfold. She's got a bigger serve now and she trusts herself to know she can get her toss up, extend her arms, hit the ball and get down on it."
Santaguida has taken lessons from Ofie Madrigal, the mother of the twins and a former assistant coach of the Trojans. It has helped her grow tremendously.
"I feel like this year I've had more heart towards this season of tennis," she said. "I really want to improve and get better. Before school I'll go hit around at the tennis court. After practice I'll stay to work on extra things. I just really want to make this year count."
Rankings through Monday's reported results. Last week's rankings in parentheses. NR = not rated.
1. Munster (1)
2. Crown Point (2)
3. Valparaiso (3)
4. Lake Central (4)
5. Highland (5)
6. LaPorte (6)
7. Chesterton (7)
8. Portage (8)
9. Michigan City (9)
10. Whiting (10)
On the bubble: E.C. Central, Marquette Catholic, Morton, Wheeler.
Duneland Athletic Conference
Players to watch: J.J. Lee, Sr.; Abby Burke, Jr.; Natalie Petro, Jr.; Ellen Kerr, Jr.
Outlook: Coach Gretchen Shinn lost her top two singles players. Daughter Margaret graduated, while junior Meg Modesto is being home-schooled and is no longer a part of the team. A lot of positions are up for grabs this season.
Players to watch: Abby Kvachkoff, Sr.; Madie Cleland, Sr.; Olivia Elston, Jr.; Angela Zieba, Sr.
Outlook: An experienced team returns for coach Brian Elston. The team is practicing hard despite the cold weather, and are making great strides on improving their games. "I believe if the girls continue with their work we will have a successful season as we try to compete with the other teams on our schedule," Elston said.
Players to watch: Jory Swider, Sr.; Andjela Jovanovic, Sr.; Navneet Kaur, Jr.; Kristi Tinsley, Fr.
Outlook: The Indians lost most of their varsity team from last season to graduation, so a young and aggressive squad will compete with each other for many open varsity spots. "They're young and eager. Most on the team have some tennis skills," coach Bryan Szalonek said.
Players to watch: Lauren Sterling, Sr.; Caroline Boger, Jr.; Jill Boger, So.; Madison Shreves, So.
Outlook: Five starters return from last season, including All-DAC pick Caroline Boger,plus freshmen Abi Glass and Grace Scissom could make their way into the lineup. The Slicers were 7-9 last season, and coach Nick Garstka believes his team should be over .500 this year.
Outlook: The Pirates lost Miranda Vega to graduation. They will need to find someone to fill her shoes as Merrillville works to compete in the tough DAC.
Players to watch: Claire Hirsch, Sr.; Megan Methner, Jr.; Kristen Palmer, Jr.; Dana Pedzinski, Jr.
Outlook: The Wolves, 16-5 last year, lost their top two singles players to graduation. Several new faces could dot the starting lineup.
Players to watch: Mandy Haupt, Sr.; Patti Mota, Sr.; Lauren Wilk, Sr.; Emily Sajda, So.
Outlook: Haupt and Sajda will vie for the No. 1 singles spot for new coach Scott Garrison. The Indians are young, with 10 freshmen among the 24 players on the roster. Eight juniors are looking for their chance to break through on the varsity.
Players to watch: Caitlin Kennedy, Sr.; Kelly Kennedy, Sr.; Brooke Sever, Sr.; Rachel Willing, Sr.
Outlook: The Vikings have plenty of experience back on the roster, but questions still remain. Willing will battle sophomores Rachel Crookston and Madisen Kammerer for singles spots. Don't be surprised to see both Kennedy sisters in doubles this season.
Great Lakes Athletic Conference
Players to watch: Ashley Famania, Sr.; Wideli Moralas, Jr.
Outlook: After losing five of seven varsity spots to graduation last season, the Pioneers will be in rebuilding mode this season. "We have 33 girls that survived conditioning and all have heart and desire to win," coach Veronica Dupey said.
Players to watch: Krystina Patricio, Sr.; Samantha Cole, Sr.
Outlook: Coach Meg Doughman said the incoming freshmen have a lot of heart and are invigorating the upperclassmen. Expectations are up in the air as this year's lineup is much different than 2013.
Players to watch: Cinthya Rodriguez, Sr.; Miriam Alvarado, Sr.; Kim Allen, Sr.; Alondra Ramirez, Sr.
Outlook: The Wildcats return six of seven starters from last season's team that went 7-4. "We want to win conference and the city tournament. Anything less will be disappointing," coach Nathan Foor said. Conditioning has went well, and it should be a good season.
Players to watch: Nancy Martinez, Sr.; Karla Gallegos, Jr.; Michaela Egriova, Sr.; Kristin Shine, Sr.; Lindsey Dridgman, Sr.; Shelby Rodriguez, Sr.; Celeste Rosillo, Sr.
Outlook: The Governors will go for their sixth straight conference championship behind the strength of a squad dominated with experienced seniors. Expectations are very high in Hessville this season. "Nancy is the fastest kid on the team. She's really transformed herself into a tough-as-nails kid," coach Deb Luken said. Egriova is a foreign exchange student from Slovakia and will provide added depth.
Greater South Shore Conference
Outlook: Four talented seniors graduated last season from a Warriors squad that lost in the E.C. Central Sectional championship to Whiting. It could be a rebuilding season.
Player to watch: Tania Flores, Sr.
Outlook: Former Portage coach Joe White takes over this season and will attempt to build a feeder program over the next couple years to help the high school program evolve. The Warriors won just one match last season, so baby steps will need to be taken, but White thinks they can improve that win total to three.
Players to watch: Ivanna Micic, So.; Hannah Blue, Jr.; Frankie Perturelo, Jr.; Emily Linz, Sr.
Outlook: The Wildcats expect a winning season despite some bad news that coach Greg Whitacre received not long ago. Hanover Central's home tennis courts have been condemned, and the team has resorted to practicing on the gym floor and trying to find outdoor courts in a different town to practice on.
Outlook: Lake Station didn't lose any seniors to graduation last season, so improving upon the 2013 campaign should be an attainable goal.
Players to watch: Taylor Bowen, Sr.; Stephanie Espar, Sr.; Mdison White, Sr.; Abigail Schmidt, Jr.
Outlook: Raymond Silvas returns for his second stint as coach of the Blazers, who lost four players to graduation last season. Silvas still feels his team can be competitive.
Outlook: Last year, the Ingots lost Gaby Gonzalez and Milagro Miranda to graduation. Coach Beau Breummer will need to fill those two holes in the lineup to be competitive.
Player to watch: Celeste Garcia, Sr.; Karlee Guerrero, Jr.; Milena Raketic, Jr.
Outlook: Garcia takes over at No. 1 singles this season. Coach Mike Rosta believes freshmen Emma Heinold, Gabriella Ramirez and Haley Collins should challenge for varsity time this season.
Players to watch: Grace Huss, Sr.; Brianna Baez, So.; Maira Huizar, Jr.; Alivia Jakubowski, Jr.; Kaylynn Anderson, Sr.
Outlook: The Oilers have been full of intensity in practice this season, and coach Arthur Young expects improvement from last year's team that won a sectional title. Huss is one of the top tennis players in Northwest Indiana.
Northwest Crossroads Conference
Players to watch: Colleen Anderson, Jr.; Megan Kaminski, Jr.
Outlook: Despite losing six players to graduation last season, the 59ers are still shooting for a winning season. Rebuilding is not on the mind of coach Carol Metzcus. "The girls are very competitive and they hate to lose. When they hate to lose, they're willing to put in the work," she said. Anderson and Kaminski are the only players back with varsity experience, but a number of talented up-and-comers will help the 59ers.
Outlook: The Panthers lost three starters to graduation last season, so new faces will have to step up for Griffith in the tough NCC.
Player to watch: Holly Santaguida, Jr.
Outlook: The Trojans graduated five players from last season's squad, so a lot of new faces will fill the lineup. Coach Jordan Heckard believes the team will surprise a lot of people this season once the girls get varsity experience under their belts. "We have had great energy in practice thus far this year. The girls are very eager to learn and improve," Heckard said.
Outlook: Losing Geena Lammertin and Mikayla Small to graduation will hurt, but the Brickies should remain a fairly strong team in the NCC.
Outlook: A good mix of youth and experience dotted the Kougars roster last season. The Kougars should fare even better as that youth has continued to develop.
Players to watch: Kristina Stefoski, Sr.; Meredith Sharkey, So., Veronica Stefoski, So.
Outlook: Lowell is coming off a rebuilding year and really working on the mental aspect of tennis. Last season, coach Kevin Deal said the Red Devils shot themselves in the foot during some matches, and the goal is to develop a stronger mental game so that doesn't happen again this season. Deal expects most matches to be won or lost in close fashion.
Players to watch: Jessica Rooth, Sr., Nikki Heiniger, Jr.
Outlook: Time and again, the Mustangs are at the top of Northwest Indiana's girls tennis teams in terms of talent. Losing Paige Heuer, Erica Tritsch and Marianna Rogers to graduation last season definitely hurt, but new coach Patrick Spohr should still have a talented roster.
Player to watch: Lauren Jakubczyk, Sr.; Stephanie Montreuil, Sr.
Outlook: Katie Sarnowski, a 2007 Portage grad, takes her first tennis coaching position. Montreuil played No. 1 singles last season, and Jakubczyk is a St. Joseph recruit. Eighteen girls came out for the team, including seven new players, so this could be a season of learning.
Players to watch: Fabiola Guillen, Sr.; Kayla Cast, Sr.; Sunayh Jones, Sr.
Outlook: Coach Dave Lane expects a competitive season. There are 20 girls out for the program, and there is good senior leadership up front. Guillen and Cast are battling to start at No. 1 singles, and Lane said whoever doesn't get that spot will team with Jones at No. 1 doubles. "My biggest problem is going to be who will take that No. 1 singles spot. There's nobody clear cut," Lane said.
Outlook: Grace Rodibaugh graduated from last season's team, but the Bombers should remain competitive in most matches.
Player to watch: Crae Johnson, Sr.
Outlook: Coach Dora Hubbard is confident that Johnson, who plays year round, can lead the team this season. Practices have been limited to hitting balls inside the school due to the weather, but Hubbard expects a stronger season than in 2013.
-- Compiled by Times writers Jim Hunsley and Matt Douthett
Preseason Top 10
2. Crown Point
4. Lake Central
9. Michigan City
On the bubble:
Caroline Boger, LaPorte, Jr.
Mandy Haupt, Portage, Sr.
Nikki Heiniger, Jr., Munster, Jr.
Grace Huss, Whiting, Sr.
Caitlin Kennedy, Valparaiso, Sr.
Kelly Kennedy, Valparaiso, Sr.
Abby Kvachkoff, Crown Point, Sr.
J.J. Lee, Chesterton, Sr.
Jessica Rooth, Munster, Sr.
Holly Santaguida, Highland. Jr.
Duneland Athletic Conference
Favorite: Crown Point
Darkhorse: Lake Central
Great Lakes Athletic Conference
Greater South Shore Conference
Northwest Crossroads Conference
Katie Sarnowski hopes for an attentive audience whether she's teaching a high school class or instructing her tennis players.
She just expects to see more smiles on the court.
"I want (the students) to enjoy their time with me whether we're working on a quadratic equation problem or serve," said Sarnowski, the new girls coach at Boone Grove. "I teach math, so I know kids like it or tolerate it.
"In tennis, they are there because they enjoy it. It's not a mandatory subject."
Sarnowski, a 2007 Portage grad, played tennis for the Indians. She's been a math teacher at Boone Grove for three years, but it wasn't necessarily a given that she would become a coach.
"It's never been a goal to be a varsity coach; I wanted to get back into the sport, because I missed playing," Sarnowski said. "I've always considered coaching (at some level), but I just wasn't expecting to do it this year. The end of the school year is busy, so it wasn't a part of my plans."
David Paupp resigned as coach, effective Jan. 14, and the team needed a replacement. Sarnowski said she was approached by some students in her class, who were also tennis players.
"They asked if I would be interested in the position," Sarnowski said. "I'm thankful they thought enough of me to consider me as a coach. I thought it would be a good opportunity for me."
She's been the coach for less than two months, so the players aren't the only ones going through a transition.
"I had to fit it into my schedule and work around other things," she said. "I know some of the players work and have other extracurricular activities. As long as we have an understanding, things work much easier."
Junior Isabel Tavaras played No. 2 doubles last season, and she's also a student in one of Sarnowski's classes. Tavaras believes it's a plus that she sees her coach in two different situations.
"She's a little more personable as a coach," Tavaras said. "We don't talk about tennis in class.
"She's very encouraging (on the court), and she tries not to get down on us."
Sarnowski is very honest about her tennis skills. She considered herself to be "average" as a high school player, playing No. 3 singles at one point of her prep career.
"I have a lot of new girls that have never played the sport before, taking in a lot of skills," said Sarnowski, who has seven new players among the list of 18 on the squad. "I know what it's like to learn how to serve or hit a forehand.
"There's always room for improvement."
The Wolves made the sectional semifinals last season. finishing with a 2-12 record. Wins and losses are on Sarnowski's mind, but it's not something she focuses on.
"Winning a few matches along the way would be great, but my first priority is that I want the girls to have a good time and work hard," Sarnowski said. "What's the point of winning if you're miserable doing it.
"Some times tennis feels like an individual sport, but it's more about the team. It's not one person's fault, and we want them to develop good sportsmanship."
Abby Kvachkoff may be the most well-rounded female high school athlete in Northwest Indiana.
As a volleyball and basketball player for Crown Point, the Bulldogs senior has received many accolades, but at the next level, tennis will be Kvachkoff's sport of choice, as she will play at Purdue Calumet next season.
Tennis was barely a blip on the radar for Kvachkoff during her freshman year at Crown Point. However, she grew to love the sport after working with coach Brian Elston.
"I definitely learned a lot from coach Elston, and he helped me improve as a player," said Kvachkoff, who is making a case to start at No. 1 singles this year. "I had nothing to lose (freshman year). I was kind of doing it for fun. I just got a little more confident when I had more skills to use instead of the normal stuff when I was a freshman."
Her skills in the sport have grown leaps and bounds. Kvachkoff went 17-1 last season, her only loss coming in a Duneland Athletic Conference dual meet against Chesterton. As a sophomore, Kvachkoff went 15-4, which is when she learned she could be successful in the sport.
"She's pretty good at changing her game plan," Elston said. "She can serve, she can volley, she can lob, she can hit with some pace. She does change a lot of things up. She plays a nice mental game. That's what makes her so successful."
Elston has seen Kvachkoff's confidence as a tennis player grow immensely during the last four years. Two wins against Munster and several other victories in big matches helped her grow in that aspect.
"I can't see how she's not going to be even better than last year," Elston said.
As a team, the Bulldogs have one of the most impressive sectional championship streaks of any sport in the state. Crown Point will go for its 20th straight title this season. Needless to say, continuing that streak is firmly set in Kvachkoff's mind. The Bulldogs last won a regional championship in 2005.
"That's definitely one of our main goals this season," she said. "Also, doing well through the tournament. We're definitely working towards that 20th sectional title, and we have some really good players to do it."
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