The Rio Rancho High School tennis teams prevailed the last time they met Cleveland on the courts, which occurred April 14. The Rams boys took a 6-3 decision at CHS, while the Rams girls swept their Storm counterparts, 9-0, at RRHS.

“Cleveland boys and girls have been working very hard with a very inexperienced new group,” said CHS coach Diana Lacour. “We have a few veterans on boys teams helping to lead and are doing a great job of passing on our culture.”

But will 2022 go down in the books as another year without any state champions from Rio Rancho?

What’s ahead this spring?

“The Rio girls will win district and boys will be in a battle for sure,” Lacour added.

What about the state tournament (May 4-5 for singles and doubles; May 6-7 for teams)?

“How deep players and teams will get really depends on district tourney and where all the players are playing (singles or doubles, since they can only do one to qualify for state); as for teams, the Rio Rancho girls team has a great chance to go far in the state tournament,” Lacour said.

The Rams girls’ coach, Uwe Balzis, agrees; his team swept Volcano Vista recently to win the 1-5A title, and he’s seen constant improvement.

“The players on positions 3-6 have taken the next step and have improved their game quite a bit. We are now winning points at those positions in which we struggled a little bit last year,” he said. “In general, we are very well-balanced now and don’t always have to rely on our top players to win all their matches.

“The best chance to win district titles in singles and/or doubles are our No. 1 (singles player) Kate Segal, No. 2 Sam Baltz, and doubles team Ashlee Searle and Kennedy Baugh.

Segal and Baltz are “all in” as a duo, Balzis says: “(They) decided to compete in the doubles competition this year. For (the APS Metro Championships last week), they are seeded first in doubles.”

The Rams boys were second in district, losing their meeting with 1-5A champ Cibola.

“We’re very resilient,” their coach, Tom Gutierrez, said. “We’ve played most of the year without our 1 and 2 (Jon Shin and Aaron Weir), and our No. 3 (Ryan Meier) was out about five weeks with an injury as well.

“We still went 7-3 and are district runners-up — our only district loss was a 5-4 loss to Cibola that went down to the wire.”

He’s buoyed by the fact that, “We have young guys that stepped up and played important matches down the stretch. Our team works hard, and they really care for each other; that has carried us through the tough times this season.”

Gutierrez thinks his team’s constant improvement will bode well at the district tournament, which takes place April 29-30.

“For individuals, I think we have a couple of doubles teams that could make some noise in the district tournament if they (Brodey Lasley/Meier, and Keegan Gooch/Thomas Icken).choose to play doubles. Any of those players would be competitive as singles players as well,” Gutierrez said. “Also, our No. 5 Russell Sartorius is capable of playing spoiler in the tournament. If Gooch gets hot, he can hit with some of the top players in the district — and cause problems at state if he plays singles.”

Historically, no state champs from City of Vision
“There is quite a bit of interest in Rio Rancho, but mostly on the recreational level,” Balzis said, wishing for continued interest in high school.

“If you want to be competitive, you have to invest more time to learn and improve your game. If you put the racquet down for too long, you almost have to start all over again,” he explained. “Ninety percent of the players that join our program are not playing competitively during their off-season.

“We are thankful that the city provides free tennis courts,” Balzis added. “They could organize a few competitive tournaments in which you compete for first place to motivate new players.”

“It would be great if the city promoted summer youth tennis programs, especially for families that struggle financially,” Gutierrez said. “I’d volunteer my time for that. There are a lot of kids that would really enjoy the sport if they got the opportunity to try it. If we could build that infrastructure and make it part of the Rio Rancho culture, that would be a huge step in the right direction.

“We’re not a ‘country club’ school, so we have to develop most of our players from the ground up, but I feel like we’ve done a good job with that at both schools,” Gutierrez said.

But even when the City of Vision had a country club, with tennis courts, though, the high schools weren’t cranking out tennis champs.

“Now that I’ve laid the groundwork with my team, I plan to reach out to the middle schools to see if we can get more kids interested in the sport and to make them aware there is opportunity to play for good programs at the high school level at both RRHS and CHS.

“My goal is to make sure that we don’t lose good athletes to other sports,” he said. “Tennis is fun, fast and it’s highly competitive — that should appeal to any athlete. I wish someone had put a racquet in my hand when I was a kid. Tennis has been on a decline in the U.S. in my opinion.”

By the numbers, nationwide, high school female players out-number males, according to the latest figures from 189,436 girls were playing high school tennis in 2019 compared to 159,314 boys. The girls’ numbers peaked in 2018, with 190,768; the boys’ numbers were highest in 2010, with 162,755.

“I don’t know if it’s gaining popularity (in Rio Rancho), but I don’t think it’s losing popularity either,” Gutierrez said. “The boys’ programs in Rio Rancho and within the state are competitive. There are a lot of talented kids out there and we’ve encountered great programs from all over the state.”

Rio Rancho High School boys tennis coach Tom Gutierrez chats with doubles players Brodie Lasley, left, and Ryan Meier during their recent victory at Cleveland. (Herron photo)