Hawaii Preparatory Academy boys coach Steve Campbell, who references the tennis greats to teach and influence his players, looks like he’s holding all the aces with a stable of Big Island Interscholastic Federation title contenders.
Last season’s singles champion Isaiah Brilhante, from Waiakea, and runner-up Daniel Tada, from Hilo, both graduated. Brilhante is at Cornell University while Tada is at University of Hawaii at Hilo. Those spots are up for grabs but a pair of Ka Makani juniors are first in line.
HPA’s talented duo of J.J. Minakata and Bryce Zeffert, who finished third and fourth, respectively, are back and both will be in the running to grab the school’s first BIIF singles title since 2003.
“J.J. has got a very aggressive baseline game,” Campbell said. “He’s mentally tough and has played his whole life. His brother, three or four years younger, is nationally ranked in Japan. Their mom is a coach. J.J is a lefty and there aren’t a whole lot of them in tennis. Rafael Nadal comes to mind. There’s Jimmy Connors, Monica Seles and my favorite Rod Laver.
“Bryce has been playing for about seven years and brings a high degree of athleticism. He’s an all-court player. He’ll stay back with his huge serve and he’s very quick and agile on the court. He’s a speed demon with good hands. He’s got an understated humbleness then becomes a warrior on the court.”
While Minakata and Zeffert are major threats to end HPA’s 10-year singles title drought, the heavy favorite for the girls championship is Hilo sophomore Emily Soares, who won the crown and finished unbeaten in league play.
The Viking standout will be pushed by her sister, senior Kelly Soares who finished runner-up in doubles at BIIFs last year. At the state championships, Emily Soares lost in the semifinals to Mililani’s Alyssa Tobita, a baseline counter-puncher, who has won the last three titles.
Sarah Dvorak, a Waiakea senior, is not on her team’s roster. She concentrated on tournaments last year, despite states being held on the Big Island. As a freshman and sophomore, she dominated league play and easily won BIIF singles titles both years.
Meanwhile, HPA also has the boys doubles covered. Brendan Moynahan, a senior, was on the championship duo while junior Alec Jones was part of the runner-up tandem.
“Brendan is coming off soccer. He’s got a big forehand and he’s very quick. That translates to soccer,” Campbell said. “Alec has been playing a long time. … Both his parents play. He comes from an athletic family.”
The HPA junior’s father is Robert Campbell Jones, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1965, served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and was a prisoner of war with John McCain at the Hoa Lo Prison — the Hanoi Hilton.
“Alec’s dad was a Purple Heart winner and later flew for American Airlines,” Campbell said. “He’s one of those guys who can tell you a story. Alec wants to play tennis in college. His mom Freya is in tennis leagues and she’s pretty good. He’s a very sound student. From the team, he’s the strongest academically.”
Kohala boys coach Hermann Fernandez, who’s a dean on the tennis scene, always has a good feel for the latest scoop among teams and title contenders.
“The Kealakehe girls team is really strong. They’ve got a lot of incoming freshmen,” he said. “HPA has the deepest boys team. They won the team title last year. They were deep last year and they’re deep this year. J.J. finished third and is the guy to beat in singles. But Bryce is a tremendous player.”
Because HPA is a boarding school with international students, a new wave of talent can walk through the door at any time. Such is the case with Wayne Tan, a sophomore from Taiwan, who’s got game, and Oscar Winsa Henderson, a sophomore from Canada.
“It’s Wayne’s first year here and he’s a good player, really steady mentally with good hands,” Campbell said. “He has an all-court game. He’s pretty much unflappable mentally. You can’t read his emotions. He’s been playing tennis about five years now and he can play.
“Oscar has really improved a lot. He would get the most improved award. He plays hockey, too. He’s been going to HPA for three years now.
“I teach a PE class at the school for first to eighth grade. We do a tennis program after school for the middle school, so I get to see all the kids coming up, which is great. It’s not quite at Punahou’s level, though.”
Still, HPA has loads of depth. There are tough seniors in net attacker Isaac Chey, from Taiwan, and homegrown hard worker Ryan Fitzgerald. The next wave is waiting; there’s freshman Jeff Marks, who’s been tutored by Campbell for five years, and freshman rookie George Donev, from Bulgaria.
“I think we’re poised for a good season right now. It’s nice having so many solid returning players,” Campbell said. “And we have another year of growth with the underclassmen. Every single player has improved across the board.
“I’m expecting a good year. We’re pretty well ready to go. Camaraderie is at a high point and we want to get the ball rolling.”