As Redmond High senior Benny Saito signed to play tennis with Westmont College in California, the most remarkable statements made about him had nothing to do with his play on the court.

“When he ran cross country, I admired his guts and his heart, he’s just passionate about everything,” said Panthers girls basketball coach Angela Capps. “He’s just a top-notch human being. He goes out of his way, and he’s got a huge heart. It’s an honor to watch him grow up through the years.”

Saito likes the school’s faith-based culture, the pre-med undergraduate program, which will help him toward his goal of being a physician assistant, it’s “amazing food,” and, of course, it’s location near the beach in Santa Barbara, he said at a packed March 22 signing ceremony at the school’s library.

“I love everything about it, honestly,” he said.

Tennis was, actually, third on Saito’s list of reasons for attending Westmont, but he loved meeting with coaches and players at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school when he visited in the fall.

“The culture that they have down there for their tennis team is amazing,” he said. “I’m glad to be a part of it.”

In talking about the college signing, Nathan Saito, Benny’s father and Redmond’s boys tennis coach, quoted legendary NBA coach Pat Riley’s statement, “Hard work doesn’t guarantee anything, but without it you don’t stand a chance.”

“Benny’s worked his butt off in everything he does,” the coach said. “It’s nice to see him rewarded for that.”

Saito put a lot of work in over the fall and winter, training at Black Diamond Tennis Academy, an indoor facility in Sunriver. He learned from Peter MacDonald, who spent 13 years as head men’s coach at Gonzaga University.

“He taught me how to win points in three or less shots, a more aggressive style of play,” Saito said.

Before heading to California, Saito has to finish his final season with the Panthers. He’s won the consolation boys singles title at the Class 5A state tournament the last two seasons.

Though Saito has been dealing with a minor injury, it hasn’t shown up in his scores. He lost a total of one game in his first three matches of 2019.

Saito has a goal of winning the state tournament this year.

“It might be doubles at this point, and it could be singles,” he said.

Coach Saito wants to see Benny, who started playing eight years ago when he was 10, make as deep a run as he can at the May 17-18 state tournament. But whether he will do that in singles or doubles remains to be seen.

Nathan is thinking of pairing Benny with Breaden Brooks, a transfer who was a Class 6A state qualifier at South Salem. The choice is not easy. While they could make a dominant doubles team, it could also mean the Panthers would score fewer team points than if Benny Saito and Brooks played individually.

“Benny has known him since he was 10 years old,” Nathan Saito said. “Both are very good singles players and very good doubles players.”

The rest of the team is pretty young, with 10 brand new players, coach Saito said. But they have lots of potential.

“They’re basketball players, they’re soccer players, they are learning tennis,” he said.

Benny’s brother Yoshi, a freshman with Redmond, said playing with his brother has been valuable.

“It’s really good to play with somebody a lot better,” Yoshi Saito said. “He just makes us better. He shows us how to act on the tennis court, how to be professional and how to be a good role models.”

With a largely new league, the Saitos hope to do well at the district tournament.

“It’s a great culture, they’re all great guys,” Benny said. “I think we can have multiple state qualifiers.”

— Reporter: 541-548-2186, gfolsom@redmond