The question becomes more profound with each win and each trophy: How good is Escalon High junior Kaitlyn Brayton?
The easy answer is that she's 66-0 with three Sac-Joaquin Section Division III tennis titles in as many seasons, which means she's not exactly a serve and a prayer out there. Better still, she's dropped only three sets in three years.
"It's a good question because I haven't seen her lose yet," Escalon tennis coach Dan Thompson said.
Other issues, however, are worthy of discussion: Is she extended by the competition in the Trans-Valley League? Could she match up against the best from the large-school girls-only teams who compete in the fall, rather than the small-schools coed teams who play in the spring? Has she improved each season?
"I want to get better and the stuff I'm doing now is OK," Brayton said. "But I do want to better my game. I do want more power and to make my backhand better."
For now, Brayton must settle for being The Bee's choice as Girls Tennis Player of the Year. She's good, all right, and here's more proof:
Her father, Bob, an Escalon High graduate, played tennis for Fresno State.
Bob gave Kaitlyn her first tennis lessons the summer before her freshman year. Nine months later, she was an unbeaten section champion.
Her brother, Ross, is the catcher for Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, which qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
"He keeps saying, 'You're going to lose tomorrow,' " she said. "I say, 'No, I'm not, Ross. Stop saying that.' "
Brayton's genes and skill level reveal the truth: She's a bona fide athlete who only now is directing much of her energy toward tennis. Years of softball, soccer, club and high school volleyball have sharpened her competitive edge for tennis. In fact, coed tennis works for her because it leaves the autumn open for volleyball.
Not only can Brayton hit against the boys, she's also challenged by sophomore teammate Presli Pilati, who -- as a Modesto Christian freshman -- took one of those three sets from her.
Tennis, however, now has risen to the top of her priority list. She hopes to continue her career in college somewhere in southern California ("I love the beach"), but merely dusting off all the hardware she's won won't get her there.
The 5-foot-8 Brayton, taller than everyone in the TVL, has noticed how the competition stiffens at the section level, where the opponents are both bigger and more talented. Her most impressive to date was her last, a hard-earned 6-4, 7-5 verdict in the section final over Center's Adaugo Ukaegbu, a 6-1 freshman powerhouse. Brayton was tested after she trailed 4-0 in the second set.
"That was the first time I've seen her pushed. You'll probably hear more from her (Ukaegbu)," Thompson said. "This girl looked like she could blow by Kaitlyn, but she got the job done."
Thompson recalled one of Brayton's match-changing shots, a lunging forehand winner down the line, that illustrated her athleticism and zeal.
"She had to make an adjustment on the run and still steered the ball down the line. It's a shot you can't practice," Thompson said. "She never lets her opponent know how she feels. If you walked up to one of her matches, you'd never know how she's doing by looking at her."
Brayton doesn't plan on losing as a senior, of course, but...
"If I lose, it's OK," she said. "I won't be happy about it, but it's not going to break my world."
Bee sports writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.