A crucial late-season decision paid big dividends for Redmond High’s boys tennis team — the first team sports title for the school in 16 years.

The Class 5A title was clinched May 18 with a three-set victory by senior Benny Saito and sophomore Skyler Jones, which also brought the pair the doubles state title.

The duo fought back in the final after losing the first set 2-6 against Eddie Hu and Lukas Reinkenobbe from Corvallis, to claim the last two sets 6-2, 6-3.

“We just looked at each other and said, ‘We have to fight for every point,’” Benny said of losing the first set, something he wasn’t used to during the season.

“We knew it wasn’t over, and we just kept fighting to the end,” Jones added.

The comeback doubles victory sealed a team comeback. Redmond trailed Crescent Valley following May 17’s first day of play. But the Panthers roared back Saturday to take the title with 15 points, to 12 for the second-place Raiders.

Despite going undefeated in duals on the season and rolling through the Intermountain Conference district tournament a week earlier, winning state still felt surprising, said freshman Yoshi Saito, who, like brother Benny is the son of Panthers coach Nathan Saito.

“I know all the work that we all put into tennis and being the best we can be,” Yoshi said. “It felt really good to actually win state.”

Redmond also got a boost from junior Breaden Brooks, a transfer who reached the Class 6A state tournament twice for South Salem. This year, Brooks reached the semifinals, where he aggravated a hip flexor injury in losing 6-2, 6-1 against eventual singles winner Alle Banna of Churchill.

But Brooks rebounded to win the third place match 6-1, 6-2 against Vaughn Reardon of Hood River Valley. Brooks credited motivation from coach Saito and his mother popping his hip back into place.

Winning a team title was a big change for Brooks, who was the only player to qualify for state at South Salem on those teams.

“It was such a new feeling,” Brooks said. “I’ve never been on a team that sent more than one person to state, suddenly sending seven people. It was something really new and I really liked it.”

A crucial decision

Following first-round losses, Benny Saito won the consolation singles bracket at state the previous two years. After starting the 2019 season as a singles player, a shoulder injury caused them to rethink that. After initially considering putting together a super-team with Benny Saito and Brooks, Nathan Saito decided the best bet was to keep Brooks as the No. 1 singles player and pair Benny with Jones.

The Saito-Jones duo rose to be the No. 1 seed going in to state and went on to win the title.

“In tennis, you want to do what’s best for the individual, teammates and the entire team,” Nathan Saito said. “After talking with players and coaches, we decided that Breaden could win us points and Benny and Skyler could win points as doubles.”

The coach was pleased to see the plan work out.

“It was gratifying in that you sit down and plan and write it down on paper, but we all know that things don’t always go as planned,” Nathan Saito said. “It was satisfying to see it all happen.”

Jones admits to being a bit shocked when he learned that he will be playing with Benny, who had already signed to play next season at Westmont College in California. He initially thought he’d be trying for state as a singles player.

“When they said I was going to play with Benny, I was really excited to be able to play with such a high-level player and be out there with him,” Jones said.

Not only did the Panthers have those weapons, but the Redmond doubles team of juniors Jeff Hair and Chad Pilling won the consolation bracket at state.

While Benny Saito is graduating, Yoshi will be a sophomore in 2020. Yoshi teamed with Charlie Rawlins to reach the finals of the IMC tournament, where they fell to the eventual state champs.

Yoshi and Rawlins fell in their first two matches at state.

Long time coming

The state team sports title is the first for Redmond High since the boys basketball team won it all in 2003 and only the fifth since 1956, when Redmond won the boys track and field title (other championships were 1959 wrestling and 2001 boys golf). The fact makes coach Saito, who coached the Redmond girls before coming over to coach the boys in Benny’s freshman year, think of the coaches who haven’t had that chance.

“I’ve been here 20 years, and I know how hard our coaches work and our kids work,” he said. “It’s nice to see that rewarded because I know it often is not. I know a lot of great teams, a lot of great coaches a lot of great players that don’t get to experience this unless many things fall into place.”

The Panthers have gradually improved since Nathan Saito’s first season as boys coach in 2016, when an anterior cruciate ligament injury kept Benny from a possible trip to state.

Helping make the difference has been assistant coach Marcus James working with players in the summer, as well as Nathan Saito being able to help teach non-tennis players the game, Benny said. The whole season has been a pleasure for the star.

“Just the experience as the season goes on is the real high point for me,” he said. “Winning is the icing on top. It’s a blessing that we’re in this position.”

Another key to success is the way the team gets along, Hair said.

“With most teams, you have people sleeping or listening to music on the team ride,” he said. “We always talk and joke. That was a big part of it.”

Impressive double

The Panthers were not only the top team on the court, they also led 5A academically with a 3.82 grade-point average. Players credit the coaches as well as teachers who work with them if they are missing class for matches.

Nathan Saito said the Panthers have the advantage of having great kids.

“We’re not dealing with issues of being late to practice or being lazy or being in trouble in school,” he said. “We were able to focus on mechanics and strategy and technique.”

The team follows Redmond School District athletic director Kevin Bryant’s emphasis on academics, athletics and character, Nathan Saito said.

“It’s satisfying that tennis is a game, and you can learn life lessons that will last a lot longer for the kids — hard work, resilience.”

The atmosphere is seen throughout the sport at the high school level. Nathan Saito said players and supporters came onto the court to celebrate the title at the Tualatin Hills Tennis Center, but they were joined by players from former IMC rival Summit, as well as current 5A rivals Churchill, Hood River and Crook County. After Banna won the singles title, the Panthers formed a human tunnel to honor the player who knocked Brooks from singles title contention, since the Churchill player didn’t have enough teammates there to form a tunnel for him.

“That’s how it should be, a gentlemanly game,” Nathan Saito said.

Though Benny Saito will be missed, the Panthers look to be strong for years to come.

“I’m definitely going to hope for first or second place,” Brooks said. “I’m going to work hard over the summer and get everything back to where it should be, and, hopefully, bring Redmond a singles title.”

— Reporter: 541-548-2186, gfolsom@redmondspokesman.com