Bihotza James-Lejarcegui rising to the challenge for Iowa City High girls' tennis

Girls' tennis: Individual state tournament berths will be decided Thursday at regional meets

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IOWA CITY — In high school tennis, the game often changes for anyone listed No. 1.

As a team’s top singles player, the competition elevates and the schedule becomes unforgiving. Some flourish, others wilt.

Iowa City High junior Bihotza James-Lejarcegui has met the challenge with a forceful calm representative of her effective forehand shot.

“I actually feel more relaxed this year,” said James-Lejarcegui, who will compete for the Little Hawks in a Class 2A girls’ tennis individual regional meet Thursday at Iowa City West. “I’ve definitely matured with my game and my mentality. ... It’s been a challenge. The players are better and they’ve made me improve. I think overall my game has gotten better because of it.”

Cedar Rapids Kennedy and the host Women of Troy also are included in the six-team field. At other 2A sites, Washington and Linn-Mar are at Waterloo West, Jefferson visits Davenport Central and Western Dubuque joins defending team state champion Prairie at Bettendorf.

The champion and runner-up in singles and doubles from each of the eight 2A regionals advance to the individual state tournament June 1-2.

James-Lejarcegui is a two-time state qualifier in doubles, including a seventh-place finish last season. With former doubles partner Susanna Gianola now graduated, the door is open for James-Lejarcegui to pursue a path to the state singles bracket. She has won 12 of 15 singles matches this season, including nine of the last 10.

“Her volleys are getting better,” City High Coach Fred Pedersen said. “She’s a little more tactical on the court. All those things are good. ... As they get older they figure things out. They understand what they need to do and what they can’t do.”

James-Lejarcegui is the latest in a notable athletic lineage. Her mother, Izaskun Lejarcegui, played prep basketball for a team that competed nationally throughout her native country of Spain. As a youth in Minnesota, James-Lejarcegui competed in a variety of sports. Despite having a close friend ranked first in the state for their age group in tennis, she did not pursue the sport until moving to Iowa in the fifth grade.

“I didn’t take it seriously, just for fun,” James-Lejarcegui said. “When I moved to Iowa, I kind of thought about trying it out. I had my dad as a resource. We hit a lot together. It grew on me.”

Under the tutelage of her father Stewart James, who picked the game up as an adult, and bolstered by the sparkling tennis facilities at the University of Iowa, her love and aptitude for the sport took hold. Now, with increased exposure to heightened competition and a mature awareness of her on-court strengths, James-Lejarcegui is fixed on earning a third state tournament berth Thursday.

“I think I’ve found what my winner shots are and how to set up the points to get to there,” James-Lejarcegui said. “I use a lot of topspin when I play, so I use that to my advantage when setting up points so I can be in control.”

In 1A regional competition, Xavier and South Tama travel to Byrnes Park in Waterloo, while Independence, Maquoketa, Marion, Mount Vernon, Oelwein and Union are at Dubuque Wahlert. Decorah visits Waverly-Shell Rock.

This year, the Class 2A girls’ state tournament will be held in Ankeny, while the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex in Iowa City will host the 1A field.

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