Corona del Mar boys’ tennis comes close before finishing runner-up to University for SoCal Regional title

The Corona del Mar High boys' tennis team finished second in the CIF/USTA Southern California Regional tournament.
The Corona del Mar High boys’ tennis team finished second in the CIF/USTA Southern California Regional tournament on Saturday.
(Matt Szabo)

Corona del Mar High boys’ tennis coach Jamie Gresh walked briskly at The Claremont Club on Saturday afternoon, before his Sea Kings played rival University for the CIF/USTA Southern California Regional title.

Gresh said the same two words a few times: “Underdog mentality.”

That was what he wanted CdM to come into the match with. His players obliged, putting up a better effort than a week before in the CIF Southern Section Open Division title match.

The Trojans were still just a bit too strong.

University’s Cedric Lichsteiner and Zitong Chen won the decisive match at No. 3 doubles, as CdM suffered a 4-3 season-ending loss.

It was a highlight-filled season for the Sea Kings, who made it to a CIF Southern Section and SoCal Regional title match in the same year for the first time in Gresh’s 11-year tenure as boys’ tennis head coach.

“If you asked us at the start of this tournament if we could beat them, the answer would probably be no,” said CdM junior Niels Hoffmann, the team’s top singles player, of rival University. “We just got our clocks cleaned by them, and they look pretty deep. But after playing Uni and putting some of the pieces together as far as [doubles] teams and some good plays, we were right in there. We kind of felt that. It contributes to the [feeling of] loss of it all, but it comes with the game. It’s the name of the game.”

Corona del Mar, which edged Woodbridge 4-3 in a regional semifinal match Friday evening to make the title match, battled back Saturday.

University took a 2-0 lead in the format of four singles matches and three doubles matches, all best of three sets. At No. 3 singles, the Trojans’ Ari Len topped CdM’s Ivan Pflueger, 6-0, 6-3. University then got a 6-4, 6-4 win at No. 1 doubles, with SangHyuk Im and Bradley Yung edging CdM’s Jonathan Hinkel and Roger Geng.

But CdM responded. Hoffmann beat University senior James MacDonald for the first time in their last three meetings, earning a 7-5, 7-5 win at No. 1 singles.

“He’s a tough matchup for me,” Hoffmann said of MacDonald, the Ojai singles champion. “I don’t really love the way he takes my ball, but it was definitely pretty fun. It was very angsty, so I’m very happy that I got the ‘dub,’ but I know it can go either way any certain day.”

CdM’s Jack Knox and Jack Barnes then rallied for a 3-6, 6-0, 6-4 win over University’s Andrew Ke and Langston Walter-Wu at No. 2 doubles, evening the match at 2-2.

The tension heightened.

University’s Ani Gupta edged CdM’s Jack Cross 6-4, 7-5 at No. 2 singles to give the Trojans a 3-2 lead, but Sea Kings sophomore Ansel Lee beat the Trojans’ Mimo Alajeely 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 at No. 4 singles to tie it again.

The Corona del Mar and University high school boys' tennis teams gather on Saturday at The Claremont Club.
The Corona del Mar and University high school boys’ tennis teams gather after the CIF/USTA Southern California Regional title match on Saturday at The Claremont Club.
(Matt Szabo)

It came down to No. 3 doubles. CdM graduate Kyle Pham, who won the deciding set as a freshman when the Sea Kings won their lone regional title in 2016, was on hand to try to root his younger brother Tristan Pham and Lincoln Lin to victory in doubles.

Time flies; Kyle Pham just graduated from Southern Methodist University last week. Tristan Pham and Lin battled, but University’s Lichsteiner and Chen posted a 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 three-set win to help their team earn the title.

The Sea Kings gathered after the match, a bit deflated but still proud.

“What’s not to be proud of?” Hoffmann said. “We’re No. 2 in the Southern Section, so that’s dope, but there’s always room for improvement when you feel that sense of defeat. What can I do better? What makes us better?”

CdM will graduate no senior starters, so there is still much hope for the future, but Gresh made sure to tell his current team how proud he was.

“We had a hell of a run,” he told them. “Keep your heads up, keep plugging away. I know it stings right now, but to be here on the final day is pretty amazing.”

Four CdM players — Hoffmann and Cross in singles, and the doubles team of Hinkel and Genc — will continue individual competition next week. The CIF Southern Section Individuals tournament picks up again Tuesday with the round of 32, round of 16 and quarterfinal matches at Biszantz Family Tennis Center, back in Claremont.