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Passing the torch

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When Leighann Sahagun arrived at Cardozo eight months ago, touted as the school’s next great girls’ tennis player, she had a built-in support system: the school’s current great girls’ tennis player, Jillian Santos.

Santos, a senior, is headed to Binghamton on a scholarship. She’s played first singles for the Judges since she was a sophomore and is ranked in the top-100 players in the nation for the Class of 2008.

“She’s a big inspiration,” Sahagun said. “It was like, ‘I wanna play like Jillian. I wanna be like Jillian.’”

There are certainly some similarities between the two. They both live in Flushing and are both Filipino (Santos is full, while Sahagun is only partially Filipino). And now they have something else in common, too: they both are PSAL Class A city champions. Santos and Sahagun, playing first and second singles, respectively, both won their matches to lead Cardozo to the crown against Stuyvesant last Thursday at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing.

It marked Santos’ third city title — Cardozo had not won any until her first year and now the Judges have three in four years. Sahagun, who coach Neal Baskin calls his best No. 2 singles player ever, is just beginning to get her feet wet on the high-school tennis scene.

Santos said she wasn’t aware of Sahagun’s admiration for her — “That’s so cute,” Santos said — but the feeling is definitely mutual.

“She’s only a freshman — my goodness,” Santos said. “She’s gonna be so good.”

Sahagun, who lives in Electchester, is already pretty darn good. She’s ranked fifth in New York state among ninth-graders, according to tennisrecruiting.com, and has started playing with the 18-and-under girls on the club circuit. Earlier this month, she was the youngest player competing in a tournament in Hawaii. Her father, Rommel, who played professional tennis after starring at Van Buren, has know Cardozo boys’ coach Howie Arons for years and he wanted his daughter to play for the Judges.

Although Sahagun was pretty well established before entering the school, she had no problem deferring to Santos as the senior star.

“She didn’t have an attitude,” Baskin said. “She’s very humble. She’s been terrific.”

In addition to Santos and Sahagun, senior Julia Passik won for Cardozo at third singles and Deva Rashtrawar and Michele Romero won at No. 2 doubles. Senior Stefanie Smith and freshman Alexa Cohen fell to Tiffany Wan and Yevgeniya Pikman of Stuyvesant at first doubles.

Santos, Passik and Smith were all part of the city championship team as freshmen and will graduate next month with three titles.

“I think we motivated the team this year,” Passik said. “I’d say we started something new (three years ago).”

The Mayor’s Cup is up next, in two weeks. Cardozo figures to match up with St. Francis Prep, its powerhouse rival from the CHSAA. A win there won’t be easy, but the future is bright. The tradition left by these seniors will go on, led by Sahagun.

“Leighann will jump right in as first singles,” Baskin said, “and we’ll fill in the gaps.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Marc Raimondi by e-mail at mraimondi@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

For more sports stories, visit: www.YourNabe.com/sports

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