Game of Thrones: Kings, queens of Tucson Catalina Foothills High tennis seek another crown

With a 12-1 record, sophomore Gracie Petrow and junior Charlotte Henderson of Catalina Foothills High School are the top doubles pair in the AIA’s Division II and hope their success will help bring the Falcons another state championship even after a rocky season. (Photo by Brett Lapinski/Cronkite News)

TUCSON – The 2024 AIA Division II Team Championship playoffs in girls and boys tennis begin with first-round matches Tuesday for the girls and Wednesday for the boys.

Sixteen teams are vying for the championship in each bracket, but 15 of the schools in each bracket will be trying to do something no boys team has done since 2013 and no girls team has pulled off since 2018.

That’s taking down the tennis juggernaut that is Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson.

The girls team has won 18 state championships, all since the 1999-2000 school year. The boys won their first championship in 1997 and now have 17 in the trophy case at Catalina Foothills, where the tennis program serves as the backbone for the school’s athletic success and has cemented itself as one of the top programs in Arizona history.

After Tucson High School’s tennis reign came to an end in the 1970s, there was no true powerhouse in the Tucson area. That all changed when the queens and kings of Tucson’s new tennis monarchy came to power at Catalina Foothills.

“Tucson breeds a lot of good tennis players, and once the school won their first few championships, these talented players saw Catalina Foothills as a place to compete,” said boys coach Jeffry Bloomberg. “We are also a strong academic school, and kids who perform well academically tend to be strong tennis players.

“With incoming students knowing they can play tennis at a high level and receive a good education, this has allowed for the success to roll over year after year.”

Girls coach Daniel Root agreed.

Junior Jason Jia is a perfect 5-0 in his singles matches for Catalina Foothills High this season, and his strong forehand play will be big for the Falcons in the playoffs. (Photo by Brett Lapinski/Cronkite News)

Junior Jason Jia is a perfect 5-0 in his singles matches for Catalina Foothills High this season, and his strong forehand play will be big for the Falcons in the playoffs. (Photo by Brett Lapinski/Cronkite News)

“There’s a culture here that’s special,” Root said. “The girls know the history and see the success from all the girls before them and just strive to continue that tradition.”

Bloomberg took over coaching duties in 2016, two years into the team’s most recent title streak, and pumped out four undefeated seasons before the Falcons ran into the only foe that has stopped it in the recent past – COVID-19.

There were no state playoffs in 2020 because of the pandemic.

“We had an amazing team that season, and were very confident we would have won the state championship,” Bloomberg said. “Not only did our seniors get cut short of a state championship, but we were also supposed to play in the national tournament in Newport Beach (California).

“The next year was not easy. We spent every practice checking everybody’s temperature and all that. The school would not allow us to use buses, so everybody had to get their own rides to tournaments, including up to Phoenix.”

Despite the chaos created by COVID-19, the freight train of a program has continued to rumble forward. In fact, Bloomberg noted that the pandemic interruption made all the returning players hungry to reclaim a championship they believed the program deserved.

Although the boys team picked up where it left off with ease, the girls team faced a tougher challenge. The girls were only two years into their most recent streak when the pandemic struck, it was losing some seniors and Root had just been named the new coach.

Nevertheless, Root’s squad responded with an undefeated record in 2021.

No matter the challenges thrown their way, both coaches have found ways to continuously lead their teams to success. It helps that Bloomberg and Root share a close relationship.

“Jeffry has been so helpful, and he and I have a great relationship,” Root said. “We help each other out. We hang out a bit. We coordinate some of the matches and the state tournaments together.

“It’s great to have somebody that you can talk to and get their perspective on what I can do if a certain player isn’t performing too well or things of that nature.”

Ranked as the No. 1 singles player in the AIA’s Division II, junior Austin Cohen hopes to help his team capture a 10th straight state championship behind his strong serves. (Photo by Brett Lapinski/Cronkite News)

Ranked as the No. 1 singles player in the AIA’s Division II, junior Austin Cohen hopes to help his team capture a 10th straight state championship behind his strong serves. (Photo by Brett Lapinski/Cronkite News)

As for the players, for the past five (full) seasons, they have shared their glory from start to finish. While that simultaneous success may come on separate courts, it’s one big Catalina Foothills team at the end of the day.

“It’s awesome to have a girls team that is just as successful as us,” junior Austin Cohen said. “We all know each other, and most of us train at the same places, making us pretty tight.”

Junior Charlotte Henderson said the girls and boys motivate each other to get better.

“We’re always competing together, and when we win, we always make videos together,” she said. “It’s really just that there’s such a strong and healthy community between the two, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. We’re the only two teams that can really say that at the school.”

The boys team heads into the playoffs as the top seed in Division II, despite losing key seniors Grant Cohen (with whom Austin won the doubles championship in 2021) and two-time singles champion Jared Perry.

Now, Austin Cohen and fellow junior Jason Jia lead the squad. Cohen is touted as the best player in Division II and is 7-0 in singles matches, while Jia is a perfect 5-0. The team itself is 12-1. The sole loss came in a narrow 5-4 non-conference defeat in their season-opening match against Brophy Prep, an overwhelming favorite in the Division I field.

“It was our first match after losing some seniors,” Jia said. “We weren’t as good as we knew we could be. After the match, we got together as a team and focused on the season ahead of us and got stronger the more we practiced.”

It didn’t take too long for the Falcons to become stronger as they tallied nine consecutive shutouts en route to a 12-0 run the rest of the regular season. The Falcon boys may be sitting pretty, but the girls had to claw their way to even clinch the home court in their first-round playoff match.

After going three for three in undefeated seasons, Root was hit with a youth bomb, having to play a rotation with hardly any seniors. The Falcons finished the regular season at 9-4, securing the No. 8 seed, but are luckily coming into the playoffs riding two strong victories after a shaky middle of the season.

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“Tennis is such a mental game,” Root said. “It’s about enjoying the competition. If you enjoy the competition, you’re going to play better and do your best.

“I’m still uncertain about this year as it’s going to be an unfamiliar challenge. We’re going to be playing tougher teams earlier in the playoffs and have to travel to the opponent’s school, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Fortunately for Root and the Falcons, they have a strong duo in sophomore Gracie Petrow and Henderson, who both have at least 10 singles wins and are the top doubles pair in Division II. No matter the record, both know this is still Catalina Foothills tennis, and a few hiccups don’t mean it’s time to push the panic button come playoffs.

“We just need to stay focused,” Petrow said. “Obviously, a couple of losses hurt us considering we have had perfect records the past years, and it’s kind of hard seeing us lose. However, it’s a part of the game, and the losses will just keep making us stronger.”

“I feel like we’re the only ones who really competed at the state level,” Henderson added. “We just had a rough patch. We still have done so well as a team, and I think just keeping that focus and keeping that motivation and keeping that teamwork will benefit us in the playoffs.”

The girls will kick off both teams’ quests for their newest banner starting Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. versus No. 9 seed Notre Dame Prep, followed by the boys matchup versus No. 16 seed Cactus Shadows on Wednesday, also at 3:00 p.m.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Brett Lapinski expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Lapinski interned at Varsity Sports Show, where he was a digital reporter/social media producer.