Montgomery’s badminton teams riding high

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Albert Nguyen, left, Montgomery's top-ranked boys badminton player, alks to assistant coach Chris Elliott during his game Monday against Quan Pham of Roseland Prep at Sheppard Elementary School.  (Scott Manchester / The Press Democrat)

Albert Nguyen, left, Montgomery’s top-ranked boys badminton player, alks to assistant coach Chris Elliott during his game Monday against Quan Pham of Roseland Prep at Sheppard Elementary School. (Scott Manchester / The Press Democrat)

Playing across nine courts in two gyms still leaves players on the sidelines as Montgomery high’s badminton team prepares for another league win.

So deep and dominant are the undefeated Vikings in North Bay League play that some of their best matches come in practice with player challenges. Competition breeds success as new and veteran players alike have fun pushing one another in Montgomery’s remarkable run.

“We play to win. If it happens that we’re undefeated, it’s cool,” Albert Nguyen, the Vikings’ top boys singles player.

Going into Tuesday’s match against always tough Maria Carrillo, the Vikings are on a roll heading to the ever challenging North Coast Section tournament.

Even this season’s sterling squad will be pressed to get players into the final rounds. Teams from the South and East Bay are tough to beat with far more players competing in badminton year-round.

“They are determined. They have the drive,” said Montgomery coach Jason Krout, a former Vikings standout. “NCS is extremely tough, but our kids’ do extremely well considering the competition they’re up against.”

In the Empire, badminton draws an ever increasing number of players with Montgomery, Maria Carrillo and Piner traditionally the strongest programs.

Montgomery’s best lead another solid group from the North Bay League. Joined this season near the top by Santa Rosa, Casa Grande and Analy, the Vikings set the standard in a league that has improved with better athletes taking up badminton.

“Montgomery has a history of putting good athletes into badminton,” said Stan Bischoff, coaching at Elsie Allen after years with Piner. “Their strongest players could do pretty well at sections.”

Strength in numbers is the recipe to success for the best badminton programs.

Some of the Bay Area’s top schools winnow more than a hundred enthusiasts to a few dozen of the best.

Prep badminton is not your parents’ backyard leisure game.

To stay on top in the NBL this season, Montgomery ace Jennie Tong worked on improving conditioning as well as shot making. More running and core strength exercises should help Tong stay sharp in long matches, particularly in the section tournament.

“I just got into better shape than I was before,” she said. “People don’t realize how hard the game is until they play it.”

The Vikings’ top girls singles player all four years on varsity, Tong has not lost a game or match this season. Improved footwork and touch on drop shots have Tong playing an even better overall game.

“You need finesse and strength to be able to adjust to your opponent,” said Tong, taking a break during challenge matches at a recent practice.

Crediting teammates with challenging her to improve, Tong said her goal is a deep run in section singles.

“Sections are a lot tougher, but it’s more fun. You play on good courts against good competition,” she said.

Competing in the section tournament for Nguyen will be the culmination of four years hard work on the Montgomery courts.

Beginning as a backyard player, Nguyen like many Montgomery teammates learned the game’s competitive side in physical education class. Then he learned the finer points from Krout and the Vikings stable of coaches.

“It’s all about where you put shots,” Nguyen said.

Footwork to be in position for making sharp shots and fitness to keep points going are what separate the best players.

“Speed and footwork are crucial,” Krout said. “It’s all about saving energy and making the right shots.”

This season Nguyen has worked on winning points quicker with an improved power game.

“I try to play my best no matter how good my opponents are,” he said.

The only losses on the season for Nguyen have been to Santa Rosa’s top singles player, Alex Trinh.

Competing in the section tournament has been a long time coming for Nguyen.

Despite being a top league player, Nguyen could not go to sections because that weekend also is when the Montgomery band performs in the Rose Parade, in downtown Santa Rosa. As a senior Nguyen, a trombone and tuba musician, can compete in the badminton tournament.

“We’ll see where I stack up,” he said. “It’s super intense. I’m just going to have fun.”

NCS spots are decided at the NBL tournament. With some of the Empire’s badminton best at Montgomery, the Vikings will have a deep team heading into the section tournament.

In addition to Tong and Nguyen, the Vikings top doubles teams are Tong paired with Peggy Hsieh and Nguyen paired with Tyler Krause. At number one mixed doubles are Serena Uppal and Tommy Wikle.

“There’s a lot of competition for the top spots. Everyone gets an opportunity to compete and grow,” Krout said. “We’ve got a great depth of players. We also have great team leadership.”

With so many teammates close in skill, Montgomery practices are challenging and fun.

“We push each other the best we can,” Tong said. “We’ve always had a strong team with good players to replace others.”

Expected to follow Tong at No. 1 singles next season is Uppal, now playing No. 2. On the boys side, Carl Qi, at No. 4 this season, should move up to the top singles spot.

“We pass on our skills to the younger players,” Nguyen said. “Hopefully they will take it and run with it and carry on our tradition.”

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