CdM boys’ tennis again falls to familiar foe University in CIF final

Corona del Mar's Jack Knox plays against University during Friday's CIF Southern Section Open Division title match.
Corona del Mar’s Jack Knox plays against University during Friday’s CIF Southern Section Open Division title match.
(James Carbone)

This one stung for the Corona del Mar High boys’ tennis team.

Coming into Friday’s CIF Southern Section Open Division title match against rival University, the Sea Kings had to feel they had a good chance to be successful.

The Trojans were missing one of their top players, senior Ani Gupta, who University coach John Kessler said was at his older brother’s college graduation. But top-seeded University still showed the championship resolve that it has possessed time and again over the last two decades.

No. 2-seeded CdM fell into an early hole and lost, 12-6, to the Trojans in the CIF title match for the second straight year.

Corona del Mar's Jack Cross plays a forehand against University during Friday's Open Division title match in Claremont.
Corona del Mar’s Jack Cross plays a forehand against University during Friday’s Open Division title match in Claremont.
(James Carbone)

University (26-1) celebrated its 11th CIF title in program history, while keeping CdM (18-5) stuck on 10 CIF championships. The Sea Kings haven’t won a section title since 2003.

“How do we keep doing this?” Kessler wondered after the match. “Since 2006, we are 170-2 in the Pacific Coast League. How is that possible? It’s crazy. I don’t have any good answers.

“I’m actually shocked, to be honest. I just didn’t think it was our day. Then I get here and [CdM singles player] Jack Cross is on the cover of the [program] for today. I’m thinking, ‘OK, this is just not our day.’ And by the way, that’s OK. We win plenty.”

University still found a way to win at CdM’s expense. The Sea Kings have made a CIF title match four times in coach Jamie Gresh’s 11-year tenure, and each time it has been University that has made the Sea Kings settle for the runner-up plaque.

CdM lost a couple of close sets early in Friday’s match, falling into a 5-1 hole, just like last year.

“This one hurts,” Gresh said. “It’s not like, ‘Hey, we competed really well and lost 12-6.’ I think we left a lot out there, I think we didn’t make the most of our opportunities. Hats off to Uni, they outplayed us for sure. They played ‘A’ level tennis, we played ‘B’ level tennis, and you’re not going to beat the No. 1 seed playing ‘B’ level tennis.”

Corona del Mar's Lincoln Lin, left, and Tristan Pham high five against University during Friday's CIF title match.
Corona del Mar’s Lincoln Lin, left, and Tristan Pham high five against University during Friday’s CIF title match.
(James Carbone)

The first round was painful. CdM’s Ivan Pflueger and Ansel Lee couldn’t convert a set point and lost 7-6 (7-4) at No. 2 doubles to University’s Joe Chan and Cedric Lichtsteiner. Both coaches put their top player at No. 2 singles, and University senior James MacDonald battled back from a break down to beat CdM junior Niels Hoffmann 7-6 (7-3) in the first round as well.

The set was a rematch of the Ojai singles final, also won by MacDonald.

“I just don’t know what it is,” Kessler said. “When you watch him, it’s OK, it’s good, but I’ve seen a lot of good players. You can’t teach heart. You can’t teach character. You can’t teach how to dig down. He finds a way, a lot.”

Gresh said CdM’s Jonathan Hinkel and Roger Geng were up a break of serve at 4-3 in the first round, but ended up losing to University’s Andrew Ke and Langston Walter-Wu, 6-4, in another close doubles set.

“The first round dictates a lot,” Gresh said. “Uni just played better than us today, flat out. It’s a little bit of a reality check. A lot of it is handling pressure, handling the nerves and playing up to the level of a strong team. We just didn’t match their grit or their level of fundamentals, to be honest with you. They just made less errors.”

The Corona del Mar High School boys' tennis team poses for a picture with the CIF runner-up plaque after Friday's match.
(James Carbone)

Ke and Walter-Wu swept in doubles for University, as did the No. 1 team of SangHyuk Im and Bradley Yung. MacDonald won twice before being subbed out, and sophomore Arystarkh Len also had two singles wins, including a surprising 6-4 victory over Hoffmann in the second round.

Jack Cross swept in singles for CdM, and the doubles teams of Tristan Pham and Lincoln Lin, as well as Hinkel and Genc, won one set each. But it wasn’t nearly enough.

“They just played better in tougher situations,” Cross said. “They were a little tougher, a little more gritty today. They just have a lot of fight in their program.”

CdM will return strong next year, as the Sea Kings graduate no senior starters. But first, the Sea Kings will compete in the CIF-USTA Southern California Regionals, which take place back at the Claremont Club beginning on May 19.