An easy camaraderie filled the tennis court at Buchanan High School as three varsity players and their coach played a laugh-filled doubles game.
Yes, it was fun. But competitive, too. All four tried to deliver winning shots during a recent practice.
When senior Kyle Knutsen, the Bears’ No. 1 singles player, hit a winning groundstroke, Coach Jonathan Slater was quick with a quip even as he surrendered a point.
“There’s the Kyle I know and love,” Slater said, laughing.
Knutsen and partner Philippe Eisenberg battled Slater and Nikita Kolmakov in a 10-point game.
Eisenberg played at the net. After missing on one volley, he connected with a winning shot. “You were ready this time,” Slater told him. Eisenberg and Kolmakov are juniors.
Eventually, all varsity players at the practice joined in three-on-three games. Good-natured banter flew across the net as quickly as the ball.
The day before, Buchanan had lost a match to Clovis West High School in the tough Tri-River Athletic Conference. But none of the Buchanan players sounded down.
“While we’re young this year, our goals remained the same — finish Top 2 in the TRAC and make at least the semifinals of Valley,” Slater said.
He has reason for confidence. The team got off to a solid 3-1 start (as of April 5) in conference play.
Knutsen is completing four years of tennis at Buchanan — three on varsity. His grandfather, Norman Fletcher, introduced him to the game when he was 5. They now sometimes play as doubles partners.
Knutsen accepts the challenge of being No. 1 on the Buchanan ladder. “It’s a nice responsibility. You have to set the standard for the team, but I feel I can handle it,” he said.
The chemistry on this year’s team is one of its strengths, Knutsen said: “We all like one another and have a lot of fun. We do a lot of things outside of tennis, as well.”
Other members of the Buchanan varsity are:
Isaiah Cummings, sophomore
Ryan Hioe, freshman
Blake McFerrin, sophomore
Michael Seferyan, junior
Ian Soung, sophomore
Brandon Takamoto, sophomore
Jonny Tiscareno, senior
Slater, an English teacher at Buchanan, said he appreciates the chance to coach.
“Every year when the seniors leave, it’s hard because you have spent so much time with them,” he said. “But you know that you have had the privilege of impacting their lives and imparting to them skills and abilities that they will be able to use the rest of their lives.”
Slater answered some questions about this season.
What was your outlook for the team going into the season?
“We knew that we were going to have to play well in each match and that it would be a challenging season because we lost our top three players (Josh Comes, Ben Liang and Mark Mileyev) from last year. When you lose that much strength at the top of your ladder, it puts a great deal of pressure on the returning players to work hard and step up and play well.”
How would you describe the quality of tennis in the TRAC, and what does that demand of your players?
“It is by far the toughest league in the section and that puts the players in a position to play against the best each match. That level of talent requires a high level of effort and focus from each player both during the season and outside of the season as they look to win and improve from match to match and year to year. One of the areas that we look to focus on is constant improvement.”
What do you expect from your seniors Kyle Knutsen and Jonny Tiscareno in terms of leadership and play?
“Both Kyle and Jonny were voted captains by the teammates this year, and we look for them to lead the way daily by setting an example for their younger teammates. Kyle is currently playing No. 1 and Jonny No. 3. Our expectation for their play is that they do as much as they can to help the team both in singles and doubles. Playing the top players each week from the other schools can take its toll on you mentally and physically. They have done a great job of staying positive and getting some big wins for us in important matches.”
As of early April, freshman Ryan Hioe was playing No. 2 singles and sophomore Blake McFerrin was playing No. 6 singles. How are they handling the pressure of varsity tennis?
“Both Ryan and Blake are doing very well for us this season. Ryan came in and surprised us a little with how much he had improved from last season at Alta Sierra, and he works very hard each day at practice and during his matches to keep getting better. Blake played for our JV team last year and put in a lot of time over the summer playing and working to get better. We knew, from working with him last year, that he has a great deal of potential and so far this year he is living up to that.”
What’s your background in tennis?
“I starting playing tennis seriously at Sierra High School under Rob Hayden, and we won the school’s only tennis Valley Championship my senior year when we went 17-0. I was No. 1 for three years there and that’s where my love of the sport developed. I didn’t play at Fresno Pacific University because it didn’t have a tennis team until the year after I graduated. I still play occasionally in Central California Tennis Association tournaments, but with school, coaching and a family, there’s not as much time to play as I’d like. I enjoy the competitiveness of coaching and the ability to see the athletes grow both in their sport and outside of it.”