CORONA DEL MAR — Facing perhaps the best high school boys' tennis team in the nation, Corona del Mar had two choices Thursday.
The Sea Kings could try to rise to the occasion. They could also get trampled, like University has done to so many other teams over the past five years.
CdM Coach Brian Ricker was proud his team took the former action against its Pacific Coast League rival, even after losing, 13-5, at CdM.
The match was closer than the score indicated. CdM was behind just 7-5 after two rounds and could have been even closer.
"This lineup works, and they're getting better with each other," Ricker said. "At least we know we can play with these guys. We get one more shot at them."
Usually after two rounds, University Coach John Kessler is thinking about what substitutes to put in. On Thursday, his team was in a battle he said the Trojans hadn't faced since beating CdM, 11-7, at Uni last year.
University (10-0, 4-0 in league) is the defending CIF Southern Section Division I champion and top-ranked in this year's poll as well. The Trojans breezed through the National High School All-American Tournament earlier in March, beating defending champion Menlo of Atherton, 7-1, in the title match.
The Trojans are heavy favorites to claim their sixth straight league title; they haven't lost a league match since 2006. Going by the United States Tennis Assn. Southern California rankings, they have an embarrassment of riches. Their three singles players Thursday – sophomores Gage Brymer and Stefan Menichella and freshman Drew Dawson – are all ranked in the top 11 in Southern California boys' 16s.
But there Kessler was deep into the second round against CdM, just hoping his No. 2 doubles team of Ryo Shimizu and Tyler Lu could hold off CdM's No. 3 team of junior Zach Williams and sophomore Paul Kacik. He had just watched CdM's No. 2 team of senior Ismaen Aboubakare and sophomore Alec Adamson outlast Uni's No. 1 team of Kona Luu and Vincent Pan, 10-8 in a tiebreaker, pulling CdM within 6-5 in sets.
Shimizu and Lu came through, surviving three match points to win 7-3 in a tiebreaker and giving the Trojans the 7-5 advantage. Uni carried its momentum through the final round, but Kessler was just happy to head back to Irvine with a win.
"The story has nothing to do with us," Kessler said. "The story is all about CdM and how well they played. Brian did a great job. They were prepared mentally and physically, and their doubles played great … I think that's the best team that we've seen this year."
The No. 1 doubles team of senior Carter Wheatley and junior Alex Murray won two of three sets for the Sea Kings (10-2, 4-1). So did Aboubakare and Adamson, who have come on strong.
"Alec has these crazy forehands that pull them out wide, or he'll lob," Aboubakare said. "His playing style is pretty crafty, so that helps me a lot. I'm able to poach on pretty much everything."
Williams is known at CdM as "Sausage." It's a nickname Ricker said CdM tennis graduate Pierce Stemler gave to Williams because "his body is straight up and down." Against Uni, "Sausage" made sure he and Kacik didn't get "bageled."
They almost won in the first round as well. In the last set on court, they were outlasted by Uni's Anthony Su and Eric Tseng, 7-5, as the Trojans took a 4-2 sets lead.
"Now they know they can play with anyone," Ricker said. "They got nervous … but you've got to lose some sets like that before you can start winning them. If you're losing them to Uni, that's not such a bad deal. Maybe they can close some out against Woodbridge and some other big schools in the playoffs."
Brymer, Menichella and Dawson won eight of nine singles sets, handing CdM senior Shane Korber his first two losses of the year. Korber did come from behind to beat Dawson, 6-4, to account for the Sea Kings' lone singles win.
The Sea Kings are ranked No. 5 in Division I but could be moving up. They'll face Woodbridge for the second time in two weeks Wednesday, and could all-but clinch the league's second entry into CIF by winning.
"Even though we lost [Thursday], it was a good showing for us," Ricker said. "It's certainly going to help us be better prepared for Woodbridge on Wednesday."
CdM's second league match with Uni is on the road April 26. Kessler said his top-ranked Trojans will have to be ready.
"We're in the same league, it's a rivalry, and the boys respect each other," he said. "We know we're going to get this every match, and that's great. I love it. That's what tennis is all about. CdM rose to the occasion today, every one of their guys."