Jacob Cates and Erin McDonald excel at tennis despite limited experience

Two local athletes made phenomenal showings at their recent high school tennis tournaments.

Milwaukie sophomore Jacob Cates placed second in No. 1 singles at the Northwest Conference District Tournament, and Milwaukie junior Erin McDonald placed fourth in singles at the Three Rivers League District Championship Tournament. Both athletes qualified for state with their high finishes.

What makes their accomplishments so impressive is that neither athlete plays that much tennis. In high school tennis, the great majority of athletes who advance to state belong to tennis clubs, have played tennis since they were youngsters and play tennis pretty much the year around. That has not been the case with Cates of McDonald.

For as long as he can remember, Cates has played soccer — pretty much the year around. The same goes for McDonald and basketball.

“Basketball’s my main sport,” McDonald said. “I first started playing tennis a little over a year ago. My dad played and some of my friends played, so I thought I’d join them.”

by: JOHN DENNY - Clackamas junior Erin McDonald“Every coach at district was commenting on what a great athlete she is,” Clackamas girls tennis coach Satomi Tsumura said of McDonald. “It’s very unusual for someone like Erin to come in and make state with her limited experience, because we’re 6A. She’s beating girls who started playing when they were five or six years old.

“Every coach was saying she’s winning because she’s a great athlete. But it’s more than that. She’s got great tennis sense. She’s good at finding the opponent’s weak spot and taking advantage.”

McDonald explained her success: “I’m just really consistent. My strategy’s always to just hit the ball back. I’m a defensive player. If you hit it back enough, eventually they’ll make a mistake.”

At the district tournament, McDonald made it all the way to the district semifinal, before losing to West Linn senior Ella Riddle, 6-1, 6-0. McDonald advanced with straight set wins over Oregon City senior Cinthia Garcia-Espinoza (6-0, 6-1), Lake Oswego sophomore Crystal Liu (6-3, 6-3) and Grant junior Madison Rosen (6-2, 6-1).

Riddle went on to defeat Lake Oswego sophomore Katie Day in the district final, 6-3, 6-1. Riddle did not have a close match at district, winning all of her matches in straight sets and losing only three games before her match with McDonald.

“McDonald came out of nowhere and placed top eight [at district] last year,” said Tsumura. “This year she was top four. Next year I won’t be surprised to see her top two.”

“I’m a little surprised I made state,” said McDonald. “I didn’t think I’d be that good at [tennis]. My friends were playing, so I decided I’d give it a try....

“Basketball’s my main sport. I’ve been playing basketball since kindergarten.”

McDonald says of her athletic goals: “Next year, first or second in the Mt. Hood Conference in tennis. In basketball, I want to win a state title. We graduated three of our main players, but everyone else will be back, and we’ve got some younger players coming up who are pretty good. I think we’ll be a lot better defensively.”

by: DAVID BALL - Milwaukie sophomore Jacob CatesCates has been torn between playing soccer and tennis over the past couple of years. He still loves playing soccer, but repeated injuries have kept him off the pitch more often than not.

“Since age 10, I’ve always had a ball with me,” said Cates. “I’ve played soccer since age 5 and I started playing club U-9. I’ll still play soccer, but now tennis is going to be my main sport. I want to play [tennis] at a four-year college.”

With limited practice beforehand, Cates turned out for high school tennis last spring as a freshman and took the Northwest Oregon Conference by storm. After missing much of the regular season because of injuries, he placed third at district, after losing to the top seed in the semifinals.

He got a tough draw at the 2013 Class 5A State Tournament and lost his first and only match to one of the state’s top singles players, Silverton senior Kelsey Rosborough. Rosborough went on to win the consolation title.

Somewhat discouraged, Cates put his racket away until this spring, when he turned out for the fledgling tennis team at Milwaukie High School.

Playing No. 1 singles, he went undefeated during the regular league season this spring. And when it came time for the 2014 NWOC District Tournament, he made it all the way to the final before losing to Sherwood Danish exchange student Anders Joergensen, 6-3, 6-4.

“I was playing him even, but then my hand started cramping up,” Cates said of his loss to Joergensen in the final. “I finished the last set playing in pain.”

Cates had defeated Joergensen 6-4, 6-0 when they met during the regular season.

En route to the final, Cates dominated all of his opponents, losing only four games. He had wins over Sherwood sophomore Jack Runge (6-0, 6-0), St. Helens sophomore Tony Zhen (6-0, 6-0), Wilsonville freshman Kyle Andrews (6-0, 6-2) and Sandy junior Sebastian Galvin (6-1, 6-1).

Cates’ achievements are all the more incredible because he had limited coaching this spring and he struggled to find players to practice with, since there was only one other boy and just five girls on his high school team.

“I had one girl on the team, our No. 1 singles girl, plus our coach, who could hit it back with some consistency,” Cates said.

While most other top singles players had several coaches dishing out advice during matches, Cates was pretty much on his own.

“My coach, Dylan Landfear, is a special education teacher at the high school,” said Cates. “He doesn’t know a lot about tennis. He played a little in high school. He volunteered so that we would have someone to coach the team. At first, we didn’t even know if we would have a team.

“When other guys have coaches talking with them and giving them advice during matches, my coach says, ‘Get some water. Stay hydrated. Keep doing what you’re doing.’ I’m pretty much on my own.”

Cates says he’s improved his serve and forehand play this year, “I’m a pretty good defensive player, but this year I’m a lot more aggressive,” he says.

Cates says he plans to join a tennis club next month and to play in some tennis tournaments over the summer.

Cates explained his decision to concentrate more on tennis as his “main sport”: “I like how you’re the only one out there. You’re not letting anyone down and no one’s letting you down. It’s just you. And it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun.”

Cates stumbled again at this year’s state tournament, losing to the No. 2 seed, 2013 state semifinalist Chandler Oliveira in his opener, 6-1, 6-1, played at the Portland Tennis Center on May 22.

But Cates was not at all discouraged by his first-round loss to one of the top high school players in the state.

“I did alright,” Cates said. “I missed some shots, but he’s a really good player. [The loss to Oliveira] made me want to play all year instead of just the high school season, because he does that. And I can do that now, because I don’t have any injuries, which is really nice.”

Cory Grove, a tennis instructor who gave Cates some lessons a couple of years ago, says of Cates’ potential: “If Jacob puts the work in, he’ll have the opportunity to play college tennis somewhere. But there’s a lot of kids who play the year around, so he’s going to have to work at it. I’m happy that he’s had the success that he’s had so far, because he’s a super-nice kid.”

Grove said he credits Cates’ success, despite his limited playing time, to his athleticism and his coachabilty.

“Jacob’s a good athlete and a quick learner,” Grove said. “He listens and he picks things up quickly. Where with most kids you have to work on something over and over again before they get it, with Jacob you show him once, and most times he’s got it....

“If Jacob does join a club, goes to tournaments, and works on it, he’s just going to get better and better. It’s going to be fun watching him improve and seeing how far he can go.”

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