For the past eight years, University High School tennis Coach Gary Sisel has had to settle for trying harder.
That’s what you do when you’re No. 2.
No matter how hard Sisel and his players tried, there was no getting past Corona del Mar for the top spot in the Sea View League.
“It’s almost as if it were a mountain we just couldn’t climb,” Sisel said. “We’ve had teams that would lose two matches out of 20 in a season, and those were both to Corona del Mar. Hey, that got old.”
Today at Corona del Mar, Sisel and the Trojans have a chance at something new: a sweep of their league matches against the Sea Kings. On March 26, University handed Corona del Mar its first Sea View League loss ever, with a 16-12 victory on the Trojans’ courts. A win today can give University the league championship outright and end Corona del Mar’s 10-year reign as No. 1.
“We’ve come close, but we’ve never been able to get over the hump,” Sisel said. “There have been so many years of their tradition. We’ve had a very good tradition through the years, too. But since we’ve moved into the Sea View League (from the South Coast League in 1977), it’s been frustrating. In preseason, we’ve always played the best teams we could find, and we’d beat them. Then, we’d get to league, and we’d have (to play) Corona.”
Corona del Mar Coach Dave Heffern would be the first to admit that putting together a good tennis team in affluent Newport Beach isn’t exactly as demanding as, say, forming a yachting club in Barstow.
“There are a lot of tennis clubs in the city,” Heffern said, “and they’ve just fed the high school. I get good players. It’s almost been like coaching a college team.”
Sisel had to like his chances of breaking the Sea Kings’ streak last year. He had one of Orange County’s most dominating singles players in senior Chris Greer (now at Trinity University in Texas), and a talented junior in George Paulson. Greer compiled a 196-12 record in four years at University, and Sisel admitted that he was somewhat surprised that the long-awaited win over Corona del Mar came in the post-Greer era.
“We had Greer for four years,” he said. “After losing Chris, you have a little different atmosphere. I didn’t know how we’d react as a team.”
The Trojans (17-1) have reacted quite well, thank you. They were beaten in a nonleague match by Palos Verdes, but were awarded the win when Palos Verdes was forced to forfeit for using an ineligible player. Their only other loss came in a nonleague match last Monday against Calabasas.
Paulson has emerged to become the dominating player Greer was last year, though most of his contributions have been made in doubles, where there are more points to be won. The senior, who moved to Irvine from South Carolina weeks before entering high school, will attend Georgia Tech on an athletic scholarship next year.
“In Orange County, he and (Corona del Mar sophomore) Mike Briggs are head and shoulders above everybody,” Sisel said. “I don’t think many coaches would argue with me there.”
Paulson was seeded third in the boys’ interscholastic division of the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament last weekend, and lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Tim Trigueiro of Santa Barbara, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
Paulson and Greer are the best players to come through the University tennis program since its inception in 1971. Sisel admits that “I can coach until I’m blue in the face, but you do not win without good kids,” but added there is no room for prima donnas in his system.
“I don’t like the one-man show,” he said. “My approach has always been that the team is like a family. Sometimes, we’ve bumped heads. You’ve got to give players some leeway. There are times when they’ll leave practice early if they’ve got a match lined up, and that’s fine. They work out on their own, more so than others. But they’ve always done what I’ve asked of them.”
Said Paulson of his coach: “He’s definitely a fire-'em-up, go-get-'em type of guy. His personality and mine sort of fit together. We’re both aggressive . . . both kind of loud. We had our differences when I first came here, but I think I’ve matured and he understands me better now.”
The tennis program at University had rather humble beginnings. Sisel, who has been there since the school opened in 1970, remembers launching the program in 1971.
“We didn’t have any courts at first,” he said, standing near what is now proudly labled Trojan Tennis Stadium. “This was all an open field.
“We would practice in the mornings at UC Irvine. I lived in Tustin, and I used to drive over and pick the kids up on the road along the way. That was a cold winter. We’d get over there and there would still be frost on the ivy.”
University reached the Southern Section 3-A final in 1975 before losing to Harvard, 18-10. In 1976, it lost a 14 1/2-13 1/2 match to San Marino in the 3-A championship. The following year, the Trojans became members of the Sea View League, and they’ve been watching Corona del Mar collect league titles ever since.
Today, Sisel hopes his team can start a new trend.