CERRITOS — With everything at stake, Sage Hill School boys' tennis coach A.G. Longoria tinkered with his lineup Tuesday.
The Lightning had won 14 straight matches, but Longoria knew Cerritos would be a tough opponent in the CIF Southern Section Division III semifinal match.
He put No. 1 singles player Robbe Simon at No. 3 singles for the match. He also moved No. 2 singles player Andrew Kurzweil into doubles with Ryan Lee.
Both moves worked for Sage Hill, which is now on the doorstep of history.
Simon swept and Sage won eight of nine doubles sets in an 11-7 victory at Cerritos High, as the Lightning advanced to a CIF final for the first time in the program's history.
No. 3-seeded Sage Hill (19-5) will play No. 4 Valencia of Placentia in the championship match June 1 at 11 a.m. at the Claremont Club. Valencia defeated St. Margaret's in the other semifinal match.
In their first year in Division III, the Lightning feel like their time is now.
"We had the most intense three days of practice that we've ever had coming into this match," said Kurzweil, who swept in doubles with Lee. "We wanted it really badly. We've wanted it since [last May], when we lost to Rowland [in a CIF Division IV semifinal match that went to a super-tiebreaker]. Now we're one win away."
Longoria put Simon at No. 3 singles to try to grab a 4-2 lead after the first round, knowing No. 2-seeded Cerritos (21-3) has two tough singles players in seniors Pilki Min and Ganesh Alagappan. The plan worked, as Simon defeated Cerritos No. 3 Curtis Wu in the first round and Sage swept in doubles.
"We had to shake them up and put some doubt in them the first round," Longoria said. "The strategy worked. We knew Robbe would [win] against the No. 3, so why wait until the third round? Let him do it first."
Kevin Marshack and Alex Manolakas continued to be rock-solid at No. 1 doubles for Sage, easily winning their three sets. Simon's big 6-3 win over Min in the second round, the last match on the court, helped Sage Hill earn a 7-5 sets advantage.
Simon said he's been gaining confidence lately, especially after advancing to the third round of CIF Individuals on Friday and playing University sophomore Stefan Menichella tough before falling, 6-3, 6-4.
The Lightning clinched Tuesday's match when Kurzweil and Lee defeated Cerritos' No. 1 team of Terry Oh and Roy Yoon, 6-4, in the third round. Kurzweil picked up Lee in excitement. Sage Hill knows picking up a CIF championship plaque in a week would feel even better.
They got revenge on the Dons, who had knocked the Lightning out in the semifinals two years ago on their way to the Division IV title. Prior to that, there were five straight years from 2004 to 2008 where Sage was eliminated in the CIF quarterfinals.
"It's a door we've been knocking on for two years now," Manolakas said of the title-match appearance. "Both of those [semifinal] losses, they hurt so much. Last year's especially, because we felt like we were closer than ever."
Sean Batten and Eric Magliarditi won two of three sets at No. 3 doubles for the Lightning. They suffered the only doubles loss of the day in a tiebreaker to Oh and Yoon, but came back strong for a 6-0 victory in their final set.
Nasier Emtiaz and Denis Cirit were each swept in singles but won games, should it have come to that. Sage Hill made sure it didn't.
"They're a good program," Longoria said of Cerritos. "They always have tough players. Our strategy was to be ahead 4-2, and that was huge that we were. [Assistant] Coach Alec [Horton] predicted 11-7 [as a final score]. I thought worst-case scenario was that we'd go to 9-9 and win on games."
Cerritos Coach Chris Chutikorn said Sage Hill was more consistent and kept the ball in the court more Tuesday. Still, he said he wished the Lightning would have played the match straight up and not stacked their lineup in doubles.
"This is how our lineup's always been," Chutikorn said. "I try to put my best singles players in singles and my best doubles players in doubles. I try to play like that, and they did the same thing other teams have been trying to do — they stacked their team. It's not unfair. There's nothing wrong with that; I just wouldn't do it. I want to go head-to-head competition. Maybe that's something I should start doing, I don't know."
The Lightning will take it. They're headed to Claremont and Longoria, the only head tennis coach the program has ever known, said it's big.
"It's huge for our seniors and it's huge for the program," Longoria said. "It'll help us get some recognition. You're in a town with Newport Harbor and CdM, and then you have Laguna Beach and Irvine. It's kind of almost fate that we're the only ones left. And the one from Newport Beach or Costa Mesa who went the farthest in the [CIF] Individuals was Robbe. So that is really huge for our program."
Now, there's just one match to go.
"We've been firing on all cylinders for a while, getting better," Marshack said. "Everything's falling into place."
CIF Southern Section Division III
Sage Hill 11, Cerritos 7
Singles – Emtiaz (SH) lost to Min, 0-6, lost to Alagappan, 0-6, lost to Yu, 2-6; Cirit (SH) lost, 0-6, 2-6, 1-6; Simon (SH) won, 6-3, 7-5, 6-2.
Doubles – Marshack-Manolakas (SH) def. Oh-Yoon, 6-2, def. Tavaragiri-Pak, 6-1, def. Tan-Cheng, 6-2; Kurzweil-Lee (SH) won, 6-4, 6-1, 6-3; Batten-Magliarditi (SH) lost, 6-7, won, 6-0, 6-4.