Sea Kings fight back

CORONA DEL MAR — Kalika Slevcove tore ligaments in her left wrist playing tennis Nov. 7.

It's still pretty wrapped up. The Corona del Mar High senior has adapted, switching from a two-handed backhand to a one-handed slice backhand.

Some might say it's been a down year for the Sea Kings girls' tennis team, which failed to win the Pacific Coast League title for the first time in 12 years.

When it counted on Tuesday, though, CdM showed just how brilliantly it could adapt as well.

The Sea Kings shook off a brutal nonleague loss to Palos Verdes Peninsula nearly two months ago, coming together for a big 12-6 upset win over the No. 4-seeded Panthers in a CIF Southern Section Division I quarterfinal match at CdM.

"Before we hadn't really gotten our stride," said freshman Lauren Thaxter, who won three times as CdM swept in singles. "Now, we kind of do. Today we knew what we were up against, so we weren't surprised by anything."

Peninsula had topped CdM, 13-5, in a nonleague match Sept. 28. Peninsula swept in doubles that day, a bit embarrassing for a team known for its doubles strength and the first time in Coach Brian Ricker's seven-year tenure that had happened.

On Tuesday, though, it was clear that the Sea Kings (18-5) had come together at the right time. They kept another long streak going — it's the 12th straight year the CdM girls have made at least the CIF semifinals. CdM will play top-seeded Campbell Hall of North Hollywood, the defending Division I champion, on Thursday at Los Angeles Valley College.

"Being the underdog, the pressure wasn't on us," said Slevcove after winning twice at No. 1 doubles with fellow senior Morgan McVey. "It's kind of nice to be the underdog, and then when you come back and win, it's just so much more satisfying. We fought great out there today."

Slevcove and McVey weren't playing together that day in September; Slevcove was playing singles at that time and got swept. But Ricker knew the Sea Kings weren't likely to get swept in doubles again Tuesday with the two seniors at the top of the lineup.

Another change was that Thaxter had been out sick that day.

Peninsula also changed its lineup around by putting usual singles standout Anna Tatsuno, a senior, in doubles. But the Sea Kings were up 4-2 after the first round, 8-4 after the second round and clinched the match soon after.

"I felt like we had a good chance to turn things around," Ricker said. "Our team has played a lot better in the last couple weeks. We actually started planning for this match four matches ago. This is our fifth straight match using this lineup. We had this one circled on the calendar, hoping we wouldn't get tripped up prior to that … I just like the way our team has gelled at the end of the year and is playing good tennis. Everyone has a good attitude."

It was going to be difficult for the Sea Kings to lose to Peninsula (16-3) with CdM sweeping singles. Purdue-bound senior Lynda Xepoleas, who has lost just three sets all year, earned the triple-bagel with her 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 wins. Sophomore Nini Ugrelidze also swept, including a 6-4 victory over Peninsula freshman Jasmine Hosseini, who had topped Ugrelidze in the earlier nonleague match and frustrated her with her lack of pace.

"Nini's had some very good wins against girls who hit hard and like to play with the same pace that Nini has," Ricker said. "She struggles with girls like Jasmine because Nini wants to hit winners, and she wants to end the point quickly. We've really worked hard with her to get her to understand that she needs to keep the ball in play longer, work the points longer and wait for the right opportunities. That was a good win for her to start to overcome that fear of 'pushers.' "

Caroline Larsen and Alison Ishii won the other set for the Sea Kings at No. 2 doubles, topping the Peninsula sister combo of Brianna and Cara Kemp, 7-5, in their final set of the day.

Ricker has his team back in the semifinals. He said it's good to have at least one streak still going, as the CdM junior varsity team had a 72-match winning streak halted earlier this year as well.

The reward is playing undefeated Campbell Hall, which is a "dream team" similar to the one CdM assembled when it last won the CIF title in 2006. Campbell Hall boasts three extremely strong singles players in Sarah Lee, Sabrina Santamaria and Alexis Pereira, plus the defending CIF Individuals doubles champions (Zoe Katz and Valerie Thong) at No. 1 doubles.

"We're going to have to show up ready to play and play our best match to come out with a victory, but I don't think it's out of the question," Ricker said. "Clearly, we're the underdogs, but we do have a chance."

Campbell Hall beat CdM, 14-4, in a Sept. 23 nonleague match. Xepoleas, ranked No. 5 in Southern California and No. 9 in the nation in girls' 18s, missed that match because she was on a trip to Purdue. Ricker figures that with her in the lineup, plus the team's improved doubles play, the Sea Kings have the talent to make things interesting.

Santamaria and Lee are ranked Nos. 12 and 13, respectively, in Southern California girls' 18s. Pereira, a freshman, is ranked No. 1 in the SoCal girls' 14s.

"It'll be tough," Slevcove said. "It'll be a hard fight, but anything's possible."

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