CERES — As good as Luis Ochoa has played the last two years, the Ceres High senior knows that his back-to-back Valley Oak League singles titles won't mean a thing to the folks at Fresno City College.
"It's going to be demanding. They've got an exceptional program and I'm going to have to improve," said Ochoa, who is potent with the forehand but struggles with the backhand.
"I've tried forcing myself to use the backhand in matches that I'm in control. The players at Fresno City will force me to develop the backhand."
Ochoa didn't need to turn to his backhand Thursday, as he rolled past Sierra's Kevin Rausa 6-2, 6-2 to win the singles title at Central Valley.
"He's the best player in this area," coach Brian de la Porte said. "He's like a gym rat, but only he plays tennis. He loves to hit and he loves to play."
That became a problem during Ochoa's sophomore year, when he'd put his homework aside so he could practice for three to four hours a night.
He paid a price: Ochoa was ineligible to play for the Bulldogs that year. He's brought home mostly A's and B's the last two years, but Algebra II remains his biggest challenge — on and off the court.
"I'm struggling in that one. I've worked to get better at numbers," Ochoa said. "College is definitely part of my future, and not just for the tennis."
The threat of missing more tennis, though, helped bring some balance to Ochoa's life.
"Now it's homework, then I go out and practice," he said.
He'll need to practice plenty to climb the tennis ladder at Fresno City: The Rams were the top-ranked team in Northern California this season.
Ochoa (31-0), who will be joined by Rausa (28-3) in next week's Sac-Joaquin Section Division 2 Tournament, beat Sierra's ace twice in league. Anything other than a third meeting in the singles' final would have been a big upset.
Ochoa wasted no time establishing control in this match. After gauging the strength of the wind in warm-ups — gusts were blowing over chairs and sending hats bouncing across the courts — he felt it best to play two different games.
"When I was going into the wind, I was trying to hit hard returns so I could get the ball through the wind," he said. "I was going for more spin if the wind was behind me, and letting the wind carry the ball."
Rausa played as well as anyone has against Ochoa, but he couldn't keep pace during the serve-and-volley exchanges.
"I've got a consistent forehand, so if I think someone is going to struggle in the longer rallies, I'll push the match that direction," Ochoa said.
Ochoa's title completes an interesting double-double for Ceres: He and McKenzy Harden have won the league boys' and girls' championships each of the last two seasons. Both their teams won league titles this school year, too.
"These are real good times for Ceres tennis," de la Porte said. "Luis and McKenzy are great kids. Luis has a brother and a sister coming up, and they might be just as good."