For the majority of this century, the Stockdale girls tennis team has dominated play in the Southwest Yosemite League.

The Mustangs have won 18 of the last 20 league titles, and figure to have another strong group this year heading into Thursday’s SWYL opener at Bakersfield High. Play is set to start at 3:30 p.m.

“The expectations ever since I started have been through the roof,” said Stockdale coach Dave Hillestad, who took over a Mustangs team in 2008 that had won five straight Central Section championships. “And I always tell my girls, that we are expected to represent and always be one of the top four teams in the Valley. No matter what the season is, you’re always expected to be good. So expectations are high, and you can win league, and that’s fine, but ultimately we want to win Valley championships.”

Hillestad guided Stockdale to a section title in his first season, and then again in 2013. The Mustangs were Division I runner-up in 2015.

“So we’ve always had a program that’s been successful and I think part of it is the girls have high expectations because we set them there,” said Hillestad.

Bakersfield faces a bit of a transition. Longtime coach Julio Mercado retired after 23 years, including 21 straight at BHS, collecting section titles in 1998 and 2002. His replacement is one of his former Driller players, Bailey Williams, who was born the year before Mercado started coaching the girls tennis team.

“We have four seniors on the team, so we have an older team where the girls have been able to take a leadership position, and create a good example for some of the younger girls on the team,” Williams said. “I’m really enjoying coaching this year. It’s been such a great year so far and the girls have all been so nice, and have such great character and sportsmanship. I’m really enjoying watching them grow.”

But facing a Mustangs squad that features four of the area’s top players may be a tough mountain to climb.

“I’m very curious to see how that goes,” Williams said. “We’ve had a few girls out playing another sport or with injuries, so our record doesn’t show it, but the girls played the best that I’ve seen them. They’ve really fought hard.”

Junior Greta Krueger is Stockdale’s No. 1 singles player, with No. 2 Gabby Guijarro, No. 3 Kiersten Anderson and No. 4 Jasmine Flores combining for a formidable lineup.

“Stockdale is pretty strong and we’re in a very good league,” Williams said. “So it will be a tough year, but I’m excited to see how my girls do because they’ve really been able to battle with those good players. And they seem to always play up to the level that their opponent is playing. They never play down.”

The Drillers counter with sophomore Hayden Mauldin, junior Monika McKenna and seniors Yasmeen Nutt and Kaylee Hopkins.

“We’re really focusing on leadership this year, and practicing how we want to play in a match,” Williams said. “So being my first year with the girls, I’m still trying to find out their strengths and weaknesses. It’s been really fun so far, but I’m still trying to figure everything out as a young coach.”

Hillestad is looking forward to opening league play again, but he also has his sights on an Oct. 3 matchup with Garces, the only team to unseed Stockdale during his tenure.

"It’s going to close, but I think (based on scores from common opponents), they’re a tiny bit better than us,” said Hillestad of the Rams, who shared the SWYL title with Stockdale last season. “Garces will probably be the team to beat, I’m not going to lie, but we’re going to try to have something to say about that."

The Rams, who open league play Thursday at 3:30 at Frontier, feature two-time BVarsity All-Area Player of the Year Alexsia Drulias and junior Jackie Sala offering a solid No. 2. The addition of freshman Kylee Limpias at No. 3 and North High transfer Sierra Kent at No. 4 singles, gives Garces plenty of talent.

“I’m excited,” said Garces coach Barb Johnston Hill, the team’s coach since 2000. “We’ve had a decent preseason. And I think we’ve got the tools to do good this year. But like I tell the players, on paper we look pretty good, but there’s no matches played on paper. So the score is 0-0 when you get on the court every day, and we have to prove every day that we’re the better team. So we’re going to try to start that (Thursday).”

Some other the local girls tennis players to keep an eye on this season: Centennial senior Aleyna Young and Golden Hawks sophomore Natalie Tun, a transfer from Stockdale.

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