D.J. Johnson graduated from East High last year, and with that everyone in the Kern County tennis scene figured the title of Best Player in Bakersfield would move on to another high school. Everyone, that is, except Blades coach Christopher Combs and their remaining best player, senior Samuel Ramirez.
Turns out, they were right: Ramirez went undefeated in the regular season and advanced to the Central Section semifinals, making him The Californian's Boys Tennis Singles Player of the Year.
It's the fourth straight year that an East High player has won the award -- the previous three going to Johnson.
"For me, as a coach, it was not really a surprise," Combs said. "Sammy has always just been in D.J.'s shadow. D.J. has been heralded, but he had to beat Sammy three years in a row in the league final. Almost anywhere else, he would have played No. 1."
Ramirez had no problem biding his time while Johnson had the spotlight.
"It wasn't too bad; we were pretty good friends," Ramirez said. "I didn't mind it much. He was really good. I mean, what are you gonna do? IT was fun. I kind of missed him this year, but it was nice that people recognized me, too."
Recognition came late also for The Californian's Doubles Team of the Year, Stockdale's John Matthew Flores and Matt Nisson.
After losing the Southwest Yosemite League final as the top seed to Liberty's Drew Raney-Andrew Engel, Flores-Nisson came back to win the section doubles title as the No. 4 seed, beating the top seed from Clovis West in the semifinals and the No. 3 seed from Clovis East for the championship.
"We just said, 'OK, you guys are seeded fourth, but you know what, you have to beat everybody to win it all,'" Stockdale coach Dave Hillestad said. "They took that and used it, and it was helpful."
Like Flores and Nisson, Ramirez didn't even win his own league title. He entered the Southeast Yosemite League singles championship unbeaten in 23 matches, including two against Garces’ Chris Robles. But Robles surprised him that day, 6-4, 6-4.
“They’ve always had tight matches,” Combs said. “And after having played D.J. (in the league final) all those years, I feel like Sammy put some extra pressure on himself because this time he knew he had a good chance to win.”
It didn’t work out, but Ramirez shook it off, beat Ridgeview’s Brian Yanez in a tough area quarterfinal, 6-4, 7-5, to qualify for the section tournament, and then ripped off two wins there, including a 6-7, 6-1, 6-3 win against Liberty’s Anthony Busacca in the quarterfinals.
“Anthony was playing pretty well, and I was too,” Ramirez said. “It was a hard match. I had played him earlier in the year and kind of caught him by surprise. This time, he played a lot better, and I had to play differently.”
Ramirez lost 6-0, 6-2 to eventual champion Andrew Gong of Visalia-Central Valley Christian in the semifinals and settled for fourth place, but he said his loss to Gong might have been his best of the year.
“He beat me pretty bad, but I made him work,” Ramirez said.
That ability to shake off adversity and continue playing well is what made Ramirez’s senior season special. He grew up as a talented ball-striker, but he said he struggled with his mindset and what it took to win tough matches.
That improved throughout his high school career, though he mostly played teams’ No. 2 players while Johnson played the top player.
This year, Ramirez came full stride.
“Mentally, this was the best I’ve ever seen him,” Combs said. “Sometimes, in the past, he would think about this or that. Mentally, he was somewhere else. But I think he didn’t want to go out as a senior that way. He knew where he wanted to be at the end of the year.”
And so the string of Players of the Year from East continues with Ramirez, who will stay on the east side and play for Bakersfield College next season.
“This year he played oustanding,” Combs said. “This is how I wanted to see him play, and we got a chance to see him do it against No. 1 guys. He used all of his talents this year.”