By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Hawaii Prep boys coach Steve Campbell, who references the tennis greats to teach and influence his players, looks like he’s holding all the aces with a stable of Big Island Interscholastic Federation title contenders.
Last season’s singles champion Isaiah Brilhante, from Waiakea, and runner-up Daniel Tada, from Hilo, both graduated. Brilhante is at Cornell University while Tada is at UH-Hilo. Those spots are up for grabs but a pair of Ka Makani juniors are first in line.
HPA’s talented duo of J.J. Minakata and Bryce Zeffert, who finished third and fourth, respectively, are back and both will be in the running to grab the school’s first BIIF singles title since 2003.
That was the school’s greatest season, under former coach Craig Pautler, whose daughter Michelle Pautler pocketed her third straight singles title as a senior while freshman Holden Ching won the boys singles crown.
At BIIFs, Ching defeated No. 1 seed and Hilo sophomore Andy Narido, who captured the singles title at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships a year later in 2004.
Michelle Pautler went to Brown University, where as a senior she led the Bears to their first winning season since 2003. She landed on the All-Ivy League second team as senior in 2007.
In that long ago boys doubles, Carl Lam and Tim Quan took the title while HPA almost made it a clean sweep, except that No. 1 seed Emily Cohen and Becky Emory placed runner-up at the BIIF championships.
Campbell, who’s not related to the Campbell Soup empire, has his own ties to tennis history. His fiancee is HPA girls coach Colleen Patton, who played at UC Irvine and on the pro ranks.
Her brother is Greg “The General” Patton, the Boise State men’s tennis coach. He was the junior national team coach from 1984 to ‘87 and helped groom players such as Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang.
Like the Broncos coach, Campbell’s group includes players with different skill-sets, recalling the baseline game of Chang, the serve-and-volley artistry of Sampras and the power arsenal of Courier.
“J.J. has got a very aggressive baseline game,” said Campbell of his boarding student from Japan. “He’s mentally tough and has played his whole life. His brother, three or four years younger, is nationally ranked in Japan. Their mom is a coach. J.J is a lefty and there aren’t a whole lot of them in tennis. Rafael Nadal comes to mind. There’s Jimmy Connors, Monica Seles and my favorite, Rod Laver.
“Bryce has been playing for about seven years and brings a high degree of athleticism. He’s an all-court player. He’ll stay back with his huge serve and he’s very quick and agile on the court. He’s a speed demon with good hands. He’s got an understated humbleness then becomes a warrior on the court.
“I like that. Those are the traits that makes Nadal a champion. No. 1, he’s respectful. No. 2, he likes to battle, more than winning sometimes. No. 3 is Nadal is not outcome-oriented. I tell that to the guys, have the sportsmanship of a Roger Federer and battle like Nadal. Those are the things we go by.”
While Minakata and Zeffert are major threats to end HPA’s 10-year singles title drought, the heavy favorite for the girls championship is Hilo sophomore Emily Soares, who won the crown last year and finished unbeaten in league play.
After Pautler seized HPA’s last girls singles title in 2003, a mere four years later Kealakehe’s Sayo Tsukamoto came along on the scene, and established herself as the greatest singles player in BIIF history.
Behind a game of grace, steely composure and technical precision, she won an unprecedented four league championships from 2007 to ‘10. Tsukamoto also took home the state crown in her senior year.
Still, Soares has a chance to match her legacy and maybe top it.
The Viking standout will be pushed by her sister, senior Kelly Soares who finished runner-up in doubles at BIIFs last year. At the state championships, Emily Soares lost in the semifinals to Mililani’s Alyssa Tobita, a baseline counter-puncher, who has won the last three titles.
Sarah Dvorak, a Waiakea senior, is not on her team’s roster. She concentrated on tournaments last year, despite states being held on the Big Island. As a freshman and sophomore, she dominated league play and easily won BIIF singles titles both years.
Meanwhile, HPA also has the boys doubles covered. Brendan Moynahan, a senior, was on the championship duo while junior Alec Jones was part of the runner-up tandem.
“Brendan is coming off soccer. He’s got a big forehand and he’s very quick. That translates to soccer,” Campbell said. “Alec has been playing a long time. He’s originally from Florida but the family lives here now. Both his parents play. He comes from an athletic family.”
The HPA junior’s father is the distinguished Robert Campbell Jones, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1965, served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and was a prisoner of war with John McCain at the Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton.
Among the First Lieutenant’s awards and citations were the Silver Star, awarded for his actions during the Vietnam War; Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a second Silver Star for his resistance while a POW; Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious conduct as a POW; and Prisoner of War Medal from his time of Jan. 18, 1968 until his release on March 14, 1973.
“Alec’s dad was a Purple Heart winner and later flew for American Airlines,” Campbell said. “He’s one of those guys who can tell you a story. Alec wants to play tennis in college. His mom Freya is in tennis leagues and she’s pretty good. He’s a very sound student. From the team, he’s the strongest academically.”
Kohala boys coach Hermann Fernandez, who’s a dean on the tennis scene, always has a good feel for what’s the latest scoops among all the teams and title contenders.
“The Kealakehe girls team is really strong. They’ve got a lot incoming freshman,” he said. “HPA has the deepest boys team. They won the team title last year. They were deep last year and they’re deep this year. J.J. finished third and is the guy to beat in singles. But Bryce is a tremendous player.”
In tennis, the lineup goes No. 1 and 2 in singles and three sets in doubles. That’s only eight spots, making life a meat grinder to earn a starting spot.
Because HPA is a boarding school with international students, a new wave of talent can walk through the door at any time. Such is the case with Wayne Tan, a sophomore from Taiwan, who’s got game, and Oscar Winsa Henderson, a sophomore from Canada.
“It’s Wayne’s first year here and he’s a good player, really steady mentally with good hands,” Campbell said. “He has an all-court game. He’s pretty much unflappable mentally. You can’t read his emotions. He’s been playing tennis about five years now and he can play.
“Oscar has really improved a lot. He would get the Most Improved award. He plays hockey, too. He’s been going to HPA for three years now and came up through the middle school.
“I teach a PE class at the school for first to eighth grade. We do a tennis program after school for the middle school, so I get to see all the kids coming up, which is great. It’s not quite at Punahou’s level, though.”
Still, HPA has loads of depth. There are tough seniors in net attacker Isaac Chey, from Taiwan, and homegrown hard worker Ryan Fitzgerald. The next wave is waiting; there’s freshman Jeff Marks, who’s been tutored by Campbell for five years, and freshman rookie George Donev, from Bulgaria.
“I think we’re poised for a good season right now. It’s nice having so many solid returning players,” Campbell said. “And we have another year of growth with the underclassmen. Every single player has improved across the board.
“I’m expecting a good year. We’re pretty well ready to go. Camaraderie is at a high point and we want to get the ball rolling.”