Sisters Eka and Neyen Essien are looking to make another deep run in the district tournament

Last May, Eka and Neyen Essien made the Pacific Conference girls tennis tournament their personal playground. by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Century junior Eka Essien (left) and her sister, sophomore Neyen Essien, will be favorites to advance deep in next week's Pacific Conference girls tennis tournament in McMinnville.

The question this year is: Can the Century duo do it again?

Eka, now a junior, and Neyen, a sophomore, were the class of the league in 2013, both making runs all the way to the singles championship final, where Eka beat her little sister in straight sets. By virtue of their top-four finishes, both players advanced to the Class 6A state tournament, Eka on a bye and Neyen due to an injury withdrawal.

The sisters are back leading Century again this season and looking for more, saying they have kept progressing in their play. While they have been linked by the sport — and not just by blood — for about half of their lives now, last year’s district final match was the first time they had played each other in a competitive setting. by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: AMANDA MILES - Eka Essien has only lost one set in singles play this spring, and will be a favorite to repeat as conference HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: AMANDA MILES - Neyen Essien will be looking to recapture the magic that got her into the finals of last year's district tennis tournament.

And while they like to push each other, their relationship — even on the tennis court — is not an adversarial one.

“I don’t think it’s really a rivalry,” said Eka, who also won the district tournament as a freshman. “I want her to play her best, and she wants me to play my best, and that’s all. I don’t hope, ‘Oh, in districts I beat her.’ Of course I want to win, but if she wins, I’m happy. Either way I’m happy. It doesn’t matter.”

Whether Eka vs. Neyen Part Deux in next Saturday’s championship final at Linfield College is in the cards remains to be seen, but both girls have been tearing through the conference again this spring, with Eka playing No. 1 singles and Neyen holding down the No. 2 spot for the Jaguars.

Through last week’s matches, Eka had dropped just one set all season, so Century coach Taylor Hukill fully expected her to come away with the singles No. 1 seed at Thursday night’s seeding meeting. She was unsure about Neyen’s chances of earning one of the four seeds.

That is not because Neyen has been underperforming this spring. In fact, she has plowed through her opponents this season aside from dropping a match last week against Newberg in three sets. A lot of it, though, Hukill said, depends on where the other coaches in the conference opt to put their top players, in singles or in doubles.

“The advantage that Neyen has on that is that she’s beating anybody that’s playing in the No. 2s hands down and pretty handsomely,” Hukill said.

No matter the seedings, they likely will not matter much to Neyen when the girls district tournament kicks off next Thursday in Forest Grove. After all, she was tabbed third last year and pulled an upset in the semifinals to earn a match for all the conference marbles with her sister, who used words such as “relaxed” and “calm” to describe Neyen.

But she also is tenacious.

“Even if she loses the first set, she always comes back,” Eka noted. “She never gives up during the match, ever. That’s what I’ve noticed over the years watching her. She doesn’t give up.”

Perhaps that comes from years of keeping up with her older sister. Tennis did not run in the family, the girls said, but they got involved in lessons at the same time through the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District in Beaverton.

Eventually they moved on to competitive play, and now they utilize a personal coach and play outside of the high school season.

In her younger years, Eka said, she liked the sport because she was good at it, while Neyen was drawn to the game itself.

“I just liked how the game went, just how to play the game,” Neyen explained. “It was good. It wasn’t too easy, but it wasn’t too hard. It was just perfect.”

One half of a famous tennis-playing sibling pair also captured her attention as a youngster.

“We used to watch it on TV, so Serena Williams inspired me, like, ‘I want to play like her,’” Neyen recalled.

To date, the Williams sisters have combined for 24 Grand Slams singles championships. Neyen and Eka are not quite on that level, but they certainly have fared well as the Pacific Conference’s sister act.

And like Serena having Venus, the Essiens have benefited, each from having the other around to serve as practice partner, to push, to inspire.

“It feels good. You have that other person,” Eka said. “I want to go hit. Let me go find someone. Oh, I have my sister right here. It’s easier.”

Close friends? Definitely.

Rivals? Perhaps not so much.

In an ideal scenario, the sisters will be on opposite sides of the bracket, Eka making it through as expected, and the lure of getting to challenge her sister again — if Hukill’s hunch is correct — will lift Neyen next week.

After all, it seems a shame if it turns out that these two don’t get to square off once more deep in the tournament.

“Her confidence is a lot higher,” Hukill said of Neyen. “She plays better when she plays against Eka. If I could get her to play like she does against Eka, then really nobody would beat her.”

That rematch sounds like it would certainly be a sight to see.

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