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Tiger Sharks to the next level

Seniors Lopez, Wilstead, Fernando look forward to moving on to college tennis

Last season, Kihei Charter School’s Jessalyn Lopez became the first MIL girls singles player to win a state title since 1994. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Jessalyn Lopez, Hobbes Wilstead and Zack Fernando will bid farewell to the Maui Interscholastic League as they take tennis to the next level in the fall.

The Kihei Charter School seniors recently committed to colleges last month before their final high school seasons were suspended indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m very excited to move on, but the best thing I like about high school was that it was very team-based, and like the first time I played with the team, I really liked that,” said Lopez, who has received an athletic scholarship from Southern Utah University. “I took a visit (to Utah) and it was probably the best visit I had — the girls were really nice, the coach was really nice, and yeah, I feel like I really connected with this one, and overall I just think it’s a really good fit.”

On top of joining the women’s tennis team in Cedar City, the three-time MIL girls champion said last week via phone that she’s planning to study business and learn how to ski during the cold winters.

“I’m definitely excited to travel with the team and play with the team, and compete at other schools,” Lopez added. “I think I’m going to be living off campus with some girls from the team, so that’s fun too.”

The Tiger Sharks’ Hobbes Wilstead had hoped to improve upon his state runner-up finish from last year. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Last spring, Lopez became the first MIL girls singles player to win the state title since Baldwin’s Kari Luna in 1994.

“Jessalyn was the most competitive player I ever have coached,” Kihei Charter head coach Ian Cohen said Wednesday. “One thing about her is she was never satisfied, and even if she won a match easily, she would critique herself and find ways to improve.”

Cohen added that she improved every year while with the Tiger Sharks, and now “she will really be successful in the college atmosphere” in the Big Sky Conference.

Two-time MIL boys champion Wilstead verbally committed to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, a school with a solid Division I men’s tennis team, and a campus that’s not too far from the ocean and the perfect distance from home.

“I like the environment of Hawaii, all the aloha,” he said. “I’ve been to the Mainland for some training and tennis, and there’s a big difference. I just like the aloha, that’s all I can say. I’ve been wanting to play for Hawaii because all the tournaments I went to with the Hawaii team — it’s always fun being the underdog, because Hawaii is always the underdog.

Fernando

“I just wanted to play and represent where I’m from.”

Wilstead had been taking prerequisite nursing classes at UH-Maui College for over a year, hoping that it might lighten his load for his freshman and sophomore years on Oahu and allow him to “focus more on the team.”

Wilstead finished runner-up at the state championships last season; he was the first MIL player to make a boys singles state final since St. Anthony’s Kento Tanaka-Tamaki in 2011.

With no end to the pandemic in sight, the likelihood that the prep spring sports season can be salvaged is very slim. While the HHSAA has yet to officially cancel the season, the most that Wilstead and other student-athletes can do is think about what might’ve been.

“I’m definitely disappointed that things got canceled this year,” Wilstead said. “I’m not as much concerned with the MILs getting canceled because I was the finalist freshman year, and won it sophomore, junior year. I was really looking forward to states this year. I was looking at taking the title for Kihei Charter, that was the main goal.”

After a few regular-season matches this year, Cohen said that Wilstead had a “legitimate shot to win MILs for a third straight season and win states,” which would have made him the first boys singles state champion from the MIL since Lahainaluna’s Malino Oda won the second of his back-to-back titles in 1998.

“I’m satisfied with how things went last year,” Wilstead said. “I’m still bummed, but I mean, I’m OK with how I went out, and just playing these last three years have just been fun being a part of the team, having team practices, cheering for everyone, and I’ll be able to continue that for the next four years in college.”

Cohen said that he’s looking forward to following Wilstead’s tennis career and that “sky’s the limit for him.”

Fernando, who has been part of the Tiger Sharks’ No. 1 doubles team, is happy to be continuing his career at Ottawa University in Arizona.

After a friend on the Ottawa baseball team recommended the college, Fernando reached out to the coach and visited the campus, saying that “the facilities are really nice.”

“I got to meet the whole team while I was there,” he said. “It just so happened that they were playing another team, and once I got there, it was the last match and they were playing for the final point and they won the game, which is good.”

Fernando plans to pursue a degree in business marketing and said that he likes how the Spirit’s athletics program is relatively new, founded in 2017.

OUAZ teams are part of the NAIA and in the Golden State Athletic Conference.

“His serve is one of the best in (the) MIL and he hits it harder than anyone in the league for pure velocity,” Cohen said of Fernando. “Zack really improved the placement of his serve and consistency this season as well. His strength in doubles is very vital to our team and his volleys and forehand are strengths as well.”

Cohen added that Fernando and his doubles partner Quinn Shapiro were in contention to win the MIL championship this season.

“Zack has really grown as a player and made improvements each year,” he said. “Glad he played for us these last two seasons.”

* Dakota Grossman is at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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