The Menlo School girls’ tennis team is one of the best programs in the state. Since 1997, the Knights have made the Central Coast Section finals 11 times, winning seven titles. They’ve finished as runner-up in the Northern California tournament four times. They lost one league title over the last 15 years.
Simply put, Menlo tennis has done it all.
Except one thing. There was one trophy missing from the case: a CCS individual singles title. In fact, despite the talent that has rolled through the Knights’ program, only Sarah Hoffman (2004) and Giannina Ong (2010) had even made it to the finals.
Part of the reason the Knights have not won a singles title is because it’s not usually a high priority for a program that puts a big emphasis on the team. Some of Menlo’s best players also opted not to play in the individual portion of CCS.
The Knights have won a pair of doubles crowns, however.
The Knights finally filled that hole when junior Elizabeth Yao capped her season by beating Mitty’s Catalina Rico, the No. 1 seed, in three sets in the CCS championship match in November, overcoming an ankle injury in the process.
“It was incredible,” said Menlo coach Bill Shine. “A first for Menlo.”
Her accomplishments earned her the San Mateo Daily Journal Girls’ Tennis Player of the Year honors.
Yao, the No. 2 seed, cruised through her first two CCS matches, dropping only one game. In the semifinals, she faced No. 3 Cori Sidell of Carlmont. Yao was pushed, but still managed to win in straight sets, needing a tiebreaker in the second to close out the Peninsula Athletic League champion.
That win sent Yao into the finals against Mitty’s Rico, the top seed and the West Catholic Athletic League singles champ.
Rico also cruised through her opening matches, before running into a major test in Anna Romeka in the semifinals. Rico won, but she needed three sets to advance to the finals.
In the championship match, Yao won the first set easily, 6-2, but got blitzed in the second set, 6-1, twisting her ankle in the process.
“It looked grim,” Shine said.
The injury affected her in the third set as Rico jumped out to a 4-2 lead. Yao took an injury timeout and, after some treatment, went back on the court, determined to make school history.
“She went out there and won four straight games,” Shine said. “She said (during the injury timeout), ‘I think I really have to go for my shots now.’ I think it helped her a little bit, taking some of the pressure off. When it’s do-or-die time, it’s difficult to keep hitting the ball hard. She didn’t and it freed her up.”
She broke Rico twice during her surge and it carried Yao to the title.
Making the win more gratifying was the fact it avenged a loss Yao suffered against Rico the previous week in the CCS team tournament. The top-seeded Knights advanced to the semifinals with a 4-3 quarterfinal win over Mitty, but Yao had lost to Rico in the process.
She must have learned a lot because Yao turned the tables a week later. Shine credited it to Yao being more aggressive.
“The thing about Elizabeth, any time she goes into a match, she has a really good chance. She’s so big and powerful, she can dictate matches. … She’s a risk taker and it paid off.”
The CCS championship capped a season in which Yao lost only four matches all season — three of them coming during the team portion of the postseason.
“[Playing] at No. 1, with the schedule Menlo puts together, I would say you can’t do much better than that,” Shine said. “Especially winning CCS. That puts her at the top because no has ever done it (at Menlo).”