FULLERTON— The past four years, the Cal State Fullerton women’s tennis team and coaching staff have made their way to an empty classroom in the Kinesiology and Health Science Building during their first week of practice.
Once there, everyone on the roster blurts out what sounds like an unorganized cacophony to the untrained ear, but what is actually a declaration of their goals for the season. Amidst the madness, the team captains attempt to trim the list to just five.
This season, the Titans decided to aim for a team GPA of over 3.0. They also wanted to be ranked nationally and to finish with a winning record (they managed the second, but not the first).
The Titans didn’t quite hit their goal of going undefeated in Big West play, and with the conference championship coming up next weekend in Indian Wells, they still have one box left to check.
“We still can knock out some goals that we set at the beginning of the year, and that’s to win the Big West Championship,” said senior and team captain Alexis Valenzuela.
CSUF’s tennis team owes its success to hard work, persistence and some words from Head Coach Dianne Matias.
“A lot of it just comes down to, ‘How bad do you want it?’” Matias said.
The Titans wanted it enough to post their best record in program history (18-3) and part of the team’s success is due to the fact that it is comprised entirely of sophomores, juniors and seniors with experience playing college tennis.
The two seniors on the team (Camille De Leon and Alexis Valenzuela) have been partners since their junior year, and their chemistry helped the Titans avoid losing the doubles point until their final match of the season.
“Playing with Lexi is really great because she tells me to relax and not be too nervous and just have fun,” De Leon said.
De Leon, who prefers playing doubles because playing with someone else helps her to stay focused, began playing tennis when she was 4 years old. She played in tennis academies as a fun hobby until it turned into a serious commitment, eventually traveling to national tournaments in her teen years. She soon began earning rankings in divisions, which led to her to being recruited by CSUF.
Valenzuela didn’t pick up a racket to play until she was 8 years old but became easily hooked on the sport.
“(My parents) put me in tennis, and the next thing you know, it just kind of snowballed from there,” Valenzuela said.
Growing up, Valenzuela also played basketball but decided to devote her time to tennis when it became less of a hobby and more of a serious pursuit.
While De Leon’s preference is playing doubles, Valenzuela prefers to take the court alone.
“It’s all depending on me,” Valenzuela said. “So if I lose, the only person I can blame is myself.”
The two seniors have been coached by Matias for the their entire college careers and said they respect her strategies as a leader. Valenzuela described Matias as “composed on the court.” De Leon agreed, adding that Matias pushes them toward their full potential as players.
Along with her calm nature, Matias empathizes with her players needing to successfully juggle their tennis commitments alongside their academics.
“We understand how difficult it is to balance all of that, but a lot of that comes down to them setting their priorities,” Matias said.
“As the years go on, you kind of learn how to balance it all,” Valenzuela said.
Reflecting on her athletic career at CSUF, De Leon recalls making it to the ITA West Regional Tournament with Valenzuela last fall.
“We had the opportunity to play against top schools. It was a really great experience,” De Leon said.
As for Valenzuela, her standout moments were getting ranked within the top 40 in the NCAA during preseason this year and taking the decisive singles match in the Titans’ games against San Jose and Cal Poly, the latter of which she spoiled Senior Day for in front of a raucous crowd.
Valenzuela and De Leon are both health science majors interested in pursuing careers in nursing. With graduation rapidly approaching, they are figuring out their future in education, but tennis is a game the two seniors will always hold near to them.
Valenzuela said she’ll attempt to turn pro, and if she can’t do that, then she’ll try to stay around the game by either coaching or playing recreationally.
“I’ll for sure miss my team. The bond that we have. We’re like one big family, like a whole group of sisters,” Valenzuela said. “I’ll just miss all the fun trips with them, practicing every day and just spending time together.”
Harrison Faigen contributed to this report.