Brian Ricker doesn't like cutting girls from his teams. The Corona del Mar High girls' tennis coach hasn't done too much of it since becoming coach in 2004.
"I've heard, 'Oh, why don't you just cut all those seniors,' " Ricker said. "I don't like cutting girls at all. I coach to help kids get better at tennis. I hated the thought of sending kids away who had already put a lot of time into the sport."
The Sea Kings will be having tryouts starting Monday. This year, Ricker plans to be more selective.
He said he needs to cut down the total number of girls in the program. Last year, there were 63 players combined on the frosh/soph, junior varsity and varsity squads.
This year, Ricker wants it to be in the low 40s. His "experiment," as he calls it, with having huge teams appears to be over.
"I've come to the conclusion that it's just too many kids," he said, citing available court space as one of his concerns. "In the past, we've had 20 on frosh/soph, 20 on JV. Twenty is still too many. On the frosh/soph and JV levels, only 12 get to play."
The Sea Kings have had success on the lower levels just as they have on varsity, where they've made the CIF final three of the last four years and won the 2006 Division I title. But Ricker said of 51 girls on his frosh/soph teams over the last four years, just one — Rebecca Beyer — ever made it into a competitive varsity match.
Ricker said a lot of girls have already switched to lacrosse or track, although as of Friday he still had 58 girls signed up to try out. His varsity team, which had 25 girls last year, will also be significantly cut down.
"This year [tryouts] will be fiercely competitive," he said.
Some girls have a more secure spot. Senior Kalika Slevcove is coming off a solid summer, with a couple wins over girls in the top 100 in Southern California in girls' 18s, Ricker said. Nini Ugrelidze, Alison Ishii and incoming freshman Lauren Thaxter are other top players.
Then, there is senior Lynda Xepoleas, who is ready to play her first and only high school season after moving from Ojai, where she trained at the Weil Academy.
The Purdue-bound Xepoleas, who made it to the singles final of the Southern California Junior Sectionals in June and the round of 32 at nationals earlier this month, is ranked No. 5 in Southern California and No. 7 in the country by the United States Tennis Assn. She is the highest-ranked player that Ricker, who also used to coach at Laguna Beach High, has ever coached.
She is one of the best girls' players to play at CdM since Keri Phebus, who won CIF singles titles in 1988 and '89 before going on to star at UCLA. Xepoleas is definitely the top Sea Kings player since Anne Yelsey, who graduated in 2003 and won the Easter Bowl and the girls' 18s national doubles title that year. The latter crown earned her a berth into the main doubles draw at that year's U.S. Open.
Ricker, who was at Laguna Beach at the time, said he remembers Yelsey was also ranked No. 7 in the nation in girls' 18s. She went on to play at Stanford.
"[Xepoleas] hasn't played in any of the CdM summer stuff," Ricker said, adding that she'll make her debut on the Sea Kings' blue courts next week.
The Pacific Coast League has gone through releaguing, and Ricker said the league is as tough as ever for girls' tennis with the addition of Northwood and Woodbridge.
CdM will likely be favored to win its 12th straight league title, although last year it beat University by razor-thin margins of 9-9 (winning on games), and 10-8 in two league meetings.
But add in Northwood and Woodbridge, two teams that made it to the second round of the playoffs last year, and Ricker said the league could have four teams ranked in the top 10 in the CIF Southern Section Division I poll.
"We're now the super-power league, a super-tennis league," he said.
Two other local teams, the CdM boys' water polo team and Sage Hill girls' tennis team, have each found themselves switching CIF divisions.
CdM, as part of the Pacific Coast League, goes from Division I to Division II in water polo. The Lightning, as part of the Academy League, moves up from Division IV to Division III in tennis.
For the Sea Kings, Coach Barry O'Dea said his team will now need to contend with teams like Villa Park, Long Beach Wilson, Montebello and Murietta Valley for the Division II title.
It could be a good move for CdM. In O'Dea's first five years at the helm, the Sea Kings have advanced to at least the CIF Southern Section Division I quarterfinals every year, but never the final. In three of the five years, including last year, they've lost in CIF to rival Newport Harbor.
The Sea Kings lost two of those heartbreakers in overtime.
"Thanks for reminding me," O'Dea said. "We've played some good games with [Newport Harbor] over the years. We want to go out there and show we're one of the best teams in the county. [Division II] will be interesting."
Longoria said some Sage Hill parents were concerned that the Lightning were moving up to Division III, noting that Sage never won a girls' tennis title in Division IV. But he also said that he felt it was a good challenge for his team, which features players like junior Katie Bick, seniors Rian and Devyn Billingsley and sophomore Liana Korber leading the way this season.
Sage advanced to the Division IV final and semifinals, respectively, the past two years.
"It's time for us to move up," Longoria said. "We're kind of looking forward to it. There a lot of teams in Division IV that could beat a lot of teams in Division III. Obviously, we don't know until we play."