La Jolla Boys: Tennis Team That Refuses to Go Away : High Schools: Since 1961, these guys have been a consistent, dominating force in section competition. And there are no signs that will change soon.
It has been 19 years, but the cheers of a crowd at the Los Angeles Tennis Club still ring in Russ Lanthorne’s ears.
There were oohs and ahs and outbreaks of applause as his La Jolla High tennis players hit winning shots against a heavily favored opponent. Lanthorne, now 63, remembers how an awed crowd gathered because of curiosity and grew with delight. They were cheering for his boys.
The sounds still echo inside his head, the wild hooting, then the hush.
Lanthorne, 10 years removed from coaching, thinks of what might have been. He had what he called, “the greatest high school team in history.
“It all came down to the last match. We were leading the third set, 4-1, and serving . . . and we lost.”
The story was not the loss. The story was that La Jolla’s opponent that afternoon in 1971 was USC, a team that went on to finish fourth in the NCAA that year.
The Trojans, with their backs against a wall, pulled out a 5-4 victory.
“It was one of those things,” Lanthorne said. “The kid from USC just started playing better. He might have realized he’d better win.”
Funny. That match, and two others La Jolla played against top college teams that year, are now just nice little pieces of trivia for a high school tennis program that has known few bounds in San Diego County.
La Jolla also lost to 1971 NCAA champion Stanford, 8-1, and UCLA, 7-2. Lanthorne said the matches only took place because his players were so heavily recruited by those teams. Six La Jolla players received full-ride scholarships to Division I schools that year.
Raul Ramirez, later ranked seventh in the world in singles, and John Holladay went to USC. Chico Hagey moved on to Stanford. Steve Mott wound up at UCLA. Ted Hagey and Alex Hernandez signed with Utah.
Forty-two La Jolla players received full rides in Lanthorne’s 13 seasons as coach.
La Jolla has won 18 of the past 20 San Diego Section boys’ team championships, 22 of the 29 titles recorded since 1961 and 15 in a row from 1970 to 1984. Nineteen championships were before the section established separate Division 2-A and 3-A tournaments.
But La Jolla, a 2-A school, continues to beat all comers. It heads into the Western League team tournament Monday with a 21-0 record. In two years under Coach Ryk Bjork, La Jolla is 42-0. If all goes according to plan, La Jolla, which has also been runner-up twice, will win the 1990 section team title May 25.
Five La Jolla singles players have won section individual championships; eight have finished runner-up. In doubles, La Jolla has won 15 of 27 recorded section titles--records from 1968 and 1969 are not available--and has had 12 teams lose in the final. In fact, one La Jolla team has beaten another for the championship seven times.
Lanthorne remembers how his players used to fear not winning the section each year. Bjork now fears they take it too lightly. Before last year’s team final, Bjork’s players took the court wearing T-shirts that already proclaimed them 1989 champs.
“We knew it would be a major upset if we didn’t win it,” Bjork said, “but I brutalized them for that.”
La Jolla was taken to a third-set tiebreaker in the No. 1 singles match, worth two points, before claiming its third consecutive title, 7 1/2-3 1/2. Sophomore David Smith beat St. Augustine’s Ignacio Martinez at No. 1 singles, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (7-5).
Bjork, 25, in his second year as coach, also works as a pro at the Hilton Tennis Club. He is the sixth coach La Jolla has had since 1961. He says coaching La Jolla is not the challenge he expected, so he’s resigning after this season.
Many of his 16 players are ranked among Southern California’s top juniors. His No. 1 singles player, Smith, was ranked 22nd in the U.S. as a 16-year-old last year. He has James Conda, ranked second in Southern California as a 14-year-old in 1989, and Jon Elsberry, who was 20th among Southern California 16-year-olds and won a national mixed doubles championship last year. All three were part of La Jolla’s section team in 1989. None are seniors.
Then along came Simon Kurth, who played No. 1 singles at The Bishop’s School last year and Tim Kreysing, an exchange student who was ranked 10th among 15-year-olds in his native West Germany.
Even Kreysing, who has been in America just a few months, expects La Jolla to have an easy time winning its fourth consecutive section championship.
“We can’t lose,” he said. “We’ve got three of the six best 18-year-olds in San Diego.”
Bjork admits that with all the talent, he has little more to do than bring out new balls for every match and pick up the trophy at the end of the season.
He says his role in the team’s success has been “pretty minimal.”
Times have certainly changed since Lanthorne, a retired math teacher, took over a losing program in the mid-'60s and wound up putting La Jolla on the same court as USC, UCLA and Stanford. During one stretch, La Jolla won 155 consecutive matches. Before he stepped down after the 1979 season, Lanthorne had coached 10 consecutive section champions.
But Lanthorne was an old-fashion whip-cracker. He made his players practice from 1 to 6 p.m. daily and put them through marathon best-of-three-set challenge matches. Bjork runs practices, too. But usually only six players will show up. The rest work on their game with a private coach.
“I worked the kids very hard, and they were extremely proud of that,” Lanthorne said.
Most of Bjork’s players are so advanced, having them practice with the team would only inhibit their progress. He is more concerned with keeping them focused and motivated during matches.
“If I’m trying to do anything, it’s to make them better people,” Bjork said. “I encouraged the kids to go with their coaches. But at the same time, it’s gotten kind of frustrating for me. I’d like to utilize my abilities.”
Said Smith: “I think Ryk’s been perfect. He pumps us up when we need to be pumped, and he’s always focused on what needs to be done. He’s a great coach.”
From the outside looking in, Bjork has a great job. Just ask Paul Rubens, coach of Western League opponent University City, who faced La Jolla as a player at Mission Bay and was once in line to coach there himself before he had to turn down the job because of a teaching conflict.
“This is no knock on (Bjork), but that team will win regardless of who’s coaching,” Rubens said. “It’s an ideal situation. It’s the best tennis community anywhere in the country. You’ve got kids who are really motivated and a community that’s 110% behind you. (The players) have the best facilities and the best equipment. They have money.”
Not only has La Jolla turned out some of the best talent San Diego has seen, it has become a tennis mecca for outsiders. Many of the current La Jolla team’s best players either moved to La Jolla as teen-agers or have transfered in from other communities.
“Talent attracts talent,” said Rubens, whose UC team was the last to beat La Jolla in a league match in 1986. “They have families that house tennis players from out of the city and out of the county. Some people say it’s recruiting. It borders on it.”
Conda, a sophomore, lives with Elsberry during school months and visits his family, which lives in Paradise Hills, only a couple of days a week. But Conda, like others, said he had reasons other than tennis for attending La Jolla.
“My parents didn’t want me to go to Morse,” he said. “I didn’t know about all of this before I got here.”
Smith transfered to La Jolla last year as a sophomore after winning the Southern Conference singles title as a La Jolla Country Day freshman. He said he didn’t like the smallness of a private school.
Kurth and doubles partner John Bucher both left Bishop’s, he said, because of the high tuition.
“It was quite a financial strain,” said Kurth, who lives in Clairemont. “School is a top priority and La Jolla is a very strong academic school. It’s just a very lucky thing they have such a good tennis team.”
Kreysing, who plays No. 1 doubles with Jimmy Brown, said he had no choice of where he would land in the states when he signed up for the exchange program in Hamburg.
“I’ve no idea how I got to La Jolla,” he said. “I got lucky, I guess. I could have ended up in Kansas.”
La Jolla has won several matches this season without any of those guys. That’s how deep the talent is.
“I’ll get in trouble for this, but they could probably beat Point Loma College and USIU, maybe UCSD,” Rubens said.
As good as it is, La Jolla likely won’t take this year’s section tournament as lightly as it did last year. Had Smith lost his match to Martinez, it would have put La Jolla and St. Augustine into a tiebreaker situation. He couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to hold up tradition.
“I thought about the dynasty,” he said. “I was down, 5-4. Ryk came up and said, ‘Well, I think if he wins, we lose.’ It was pretty hairy.”