Still working to perfect their games as they entered the 2022 high school tennis season, Rio Rancho High School senior Kate Segal and junior Sam Baltz made a great decision: Since prep players can’t play singles and doubles at the state tournament and knowing La Cueva sophomore sensation and 2021 singles champ Cameron King would again be playing singles, the Rams would play doubles.
Flash ahead a few months, to May 6, and look who became the new Class 5A girls’ doubles team champs: Kate and Sam. And, certainly not to either Ram’s surprise, guess who was the state’s championship singles player? La Cueva’s Cameron King, who swept through to the championship in straight sets every match.
Yes, that decision was arguably the best made this spring, because King wasn’t the only threat to singles players throughout the state: Stephanie Romero, also a La Cueva sophomore, was a top-notch player. She beat Segal in the 2021 singles semifinals — and lost to her teammate, King, in the ’22 singles finale, 6-2, 6-3.
And because deciding to play singles or doubles only comes up for district and state competition, Segal and Baltz played singles and combined for doubles action throughout the regular season, losing only one doubles match: to King-Romero!
Segal-Baltz were the Metro doubles champs, and the District 1-5A champion duo. King was also a Metro champ, so the handwriting was on the wall.
They weren’t enamored with being the No. 1 seed at state, Segal said.
“You’re not the underdog anymore, and I like being the underdog,” she said. “I don’t know, but we did it.”
Through nearly a quarter-century of competition, RRHS had never had a tennis champ — in team, singles or doubles competition. In 2007, the Rams came close: That girls team finished second and the doubles team of Stephanie Lopez and Alyssa Anastasi lost in the semis before rallying to place third.
Fifteen years later, the Rams girls were runners-up again, but the school had its first state champs, after Segal-Baltz won all four of their matches at the Jerry Cline tennis complex, whipping Farmington High’s third-seeded tandem, Natalia Sawyer and Marley Deswood (6-3, 6-1) in the championship match.
Segal and Baltz knew how hard it is to win at singles at state, which they had been doing since they were eighth-graders. They’ve been together longer than that, picking up the game at about the same time, having the same coaches, playing in the same youth tournaments and attending the same schools: Maggie Cordova Elementary and Lincoln Middle School before becoming Rams.
Longtime RRPS elementary school teacher Danielle Baltz takes credit for enticing her daughter to play the game.
Danielle played tennis for her high school in Nebraska, “and when we moved here, I started playing city (league) tennis; I played beginning and then intermediate, taking lessons, as an adult.
“Samantha, who was around 5 or 6, she wanted to play, too. We put her in for the city kids’ program in Rio Rancho, and my coach, Chuck Brennan, started private-coaching her,” she recalled. “Samantha was 7, and he started enrolling her in (multiple programs).”
It wasn’t the youngster’s only athletic participation: “It started getting too much, so she had to choose. She chose tennis.”
“Gymnastics was a no-go,” Sam added, although her days in gymnastics increased her strength.
“Once she got into tennis, gymnastics just went out the window,” Danielle said. “She eats, sleeps — everything — tennis. Samantha’s very even with a positive attitude.”
Segal was more adventurous: “I did, like, all the sports. I did soccer, I did track, I even played T-ball; I was a cheerleader for a little while. My dad got me into tennis; he had played at the University of Arizona.
“He was just like, ‘Go out there. See if you like it.’”
She did, at about 7 years old, starting with coaching at the Lobo Club, followed by plenty of tournament action.
“Tennis was good. It kept me on my feet,” Segal added. “I liked the fast pace.”
By the age of 12, she figured she was pretty good at it.
Sam and Segal met during their days playing at the country club in Rio Rancho, last known as Club Rio Rancho when its glory days ended in late 2016, formally only a memory after the clubhouse was torched Oct. 4, 2019. Former Lobo Johnny Parkes had been their coach back then.
“I’d say my forehand’s pretty good, and my serve — on a good day,” Baltz said, hoping to improve that facet of her game, with a more-powerful serve, and improve her backhand.
Her summer will be filled with tennis, at camps and tournaments. Her favorite player is Simona Halep, a Romanian who was ranked No. 1 in the world twice (2017, ’18) in singles, was the 2018 French Open and 2019 Wimbledon champ, and started playing the game at the age of 4.
“Of course, Serena Williams is up there, too,” she said, to the extent of enjoying the “King Richard” movie, about Serena and her sister Venus.
Segal’s favorite player is Billie Jean King.
Giggling during their interview with the Observer in coach Uwe Balzis’s office on May 9, they said the decision to team up at state and play doubles instead of singles “wasn’t really that much of a conversation, we were just like, ‘We should play doubles,’ and it was, ‘Yeah, we’ll do that,’” Baltz said.
“(King) trains so much and we’re just not at that level,” Segal added. “We just thought doubles would be the better option.”
Obviously, it was.
“We started playing doubles in high school, but we’ve been practicing together for a long time, so that chemistry’s always been there,” Segal said.
Chemistry class wasn’t finalized until the duo decided who would be on which side of the court.
“I started at forehand for, like, three years, and I think this is the first year I started playing backhand, and I think that really helps us out — we started playing better,” Segal said.
“My backhand is not as strong as hers,” admitted Baltz, with a laugh. “So I was like, I think we might have to switch sides.”
They did. It was another easy decision. The two agree with something a coach once told them, “It’s 90 percent mental and 10 percent tennis.”
“You have to think all the time. Yeah, it takes a lot of talent and skill, but it’s a lot of focusing and thinking about what the next shot’s gonna be, and how am I gonna hit it? Where am I gonna hit it? What am I gonna do after I hit it?”
Balzis didn’t coach his champs; they’re coached by Andy Cramer at Tanoan, Segal said, but Balzis “is helpful in a way; he pushes us.”
Balzis allows the duo to practice at Tanoan, often skipping practices at RRHS.
Next season, when Segal is studying at New Mexico State University — collegiate competition, other than enjoying club tennis, isn’t in her plans — taking aim at an eventual degree in kinesiology for a career in health science, Baltz will probably stick to singles — finding great chemistry, like she has with Segal, isn’t easy.
“Win or lose, we’re all happy at the end of the day,” Segal said of the second-place Rams girls team, seeded third for the state tournament but posting a win over No. 2 Farmington, before the loss to the Bears.