By Ryan Murken
Your Prep Sports
IOWA CITY – With a polite smile, Bihotza James-Lejarcegui slowly pronounced her name.
First name, then last name with an emphasis on each syllable.
Then quickly and without prompting the City High junior rattles of her full name and ends with an ear-to-ear grin.
“Don’t worry, it’s fine,” James-Lejarcegui said reassuringly. “Nobody gets it right the first time, it’s a lot of random letters.”
James-Lejarcegui has grown accustomed to having to repeat her name.
As her success on the tennis court continues to soar more and more people are beginning to remember the name.
“Bihotza,” James-Lejarcegui says kindly. “You’ll get it.”
If the name wasn’t familiar to tennis fans in Iowa it certainly is now.
James-Lejarcegui has exploded onto the state singles scene this season posting a 16-4 record and earning her first trip to the Class 2A state singles tournament which opens Thursday morning at 10 a.m. at Prairie Ridge Sports Complex in Ankeny.
“I would say she is somewhere in the top five or the top six in the state,” City High coach Fred Pedersen said. “She knows what she needs to do to compete with those girls and I think she is comfortable with that.”
James-Lejarcegui has been a key piece of the City High lineup the past two seasons.
She is a two-time state qualifier in doubles with former partner Susanna Gianola and finished seventh at state last season.
With Gianola gone, James-Lejarcegui turned her attention to singles this season and quickly began to open eyes.
“I think I’ve always been a singles player and I always knew that but I had an amazing doubles partner and we really connected,” James-Lejarcegui said. “I’ve always been a singles player but playing number one and making it to state is not something I expected.”
Making the jump from number three singles to the top spot in the lineup can be daunting for some players.
James-Lejarcegui didn’t let her spot in the lineup change the way that she approached a match.
In fact, James-Lejarcegui says going into the season as a relative unknown as a number one kept pressure from mounting against top players.
“This year I went in and I said ‘I’ll just hit, I’ll just play a good match, it’s not about the winning I’ll just play a good match’ and I ended up winning,” James-Lejarcegui said. “I got in that mindset that if I played a good match I could win.”
James-Lejarcegui opened the season 3-2 with losses to state qualifiers Lily Feldman of Pleasant Valley and Emilia Porubcin of Bettendorf.
Since a 10-4 loss to Feldman on April 13 James-Lejarcegui has won 13 of her last 15 matches and earned wins over two state qualifiers during that stretch.
James-Lejarcegui earned her first state singles appearance by winning the Class 2A Region 8 title without dropping a set.
“Definitely the whole mental game has been big,” James-Lejarcegui said. “I’ve been setting up points better this year so I can hit winners which has been keeping me in control. When you are in the top two courts you don’t win based off of errors you win based off of winners so I’ve been working on that more.”
Pedersen was interested to see how James-Lejarcegui handled everything that comes with being in the top spot in the lineup.
The veteran City High coach hasn’t seen a change in demeanor for the even keel James-Lejarcegui.
“She is a tough read she doesn’t get up or down,” Pedersen said. “That is one of her strengths.”
James-Lejarcegui will face Jamie Zhang of Ames in her state singles debut on Thursday and could get a rematch with third-seeded Feldman in the quarterfinals.
She is 3-2 against state tournament qualifiers this season with a 10-3 loss to Porubcin last month.
“These are definitely the best players,” James-Lejarcegui said. “A couple of the people I have played in the past and they beat me but we had really good matches. If I can play at my highest level and make them work for it that’s kind of my goal.”