Constantly pushing the envelope

University High boys' tennis Coach John Kessler's job is more difficult than one might think.

Sure, his program continues to have remarkable success, but that's where it gets challenging. Kessler, in his 10th year at University, is having a hard time finding a ladder long enough to allow him to keep raising the bar.

Such are the travails of coaching a team that has been to five consecutive CIF Southern Section Division I finals, winning three, holds a regular-season record of 102-4 during the past five-plus seasons and continues to feature some of the top boys' tennis players in the nation.

"Irvine is a hotbed for tennis and we've been fortunate to have a lot of quality players," Kessler said. "I have to keep finding ways for motivation, so our goal this year is to win three things — the All-American Tournament, Ojai and CIF. We've never won all three in the same year."

University has one down, two to go. The Trojans won the All-American Tournament held in Newport Beach last month, no small feat considering it annually features some of the top high school tennis teams in the country.

University was seeded No. 2, but breezed to the championship, beating Los Gatos and Rancho Bernardo by the same 8-0 score, then beating R.J. Reynolds High (Winston Salem, N.C.), 7-1, to reach the championship match against The Menlo School from Atherton, Calif.

University, which had lost to The Menlo School in last year's tournament final, turned it around and won the tournament title with a 7-1 victory.

The Ojai Valley Tournament, another nationally acclaimed tournament, takes place later this month, followed by the Trojans' quest to defend last year's CIF Division I crown.

University is 12-0 this season, including 6-0 in the Pacific Coast League, seemingly on its way to a sixth consecutive PCL title. The Trojans are 54-1 in league play going back to 2006.

This year's team is young, as the top four players on the team are freshmen and sophomores.

No. 1 Gage Brymer, a sophomore, and No. 2 Stefan Menichella, also a sophomore, are University's best players, but for different reasons.

"Stefan is 6 feet 4 and is growing very fast," Kessler said. "His issue is growing into his body. He hits a big shot, but he's a more crafty type of player. He has a good drop shot. He's not as clean, but has more shots than Gage.

"Gage is a phenomenal player, he's like a machine. He works hard and is always on the ball. I haven't seen someone with as much focus as he has on each and every shot. He's very special."

Drew Dawson, only a freshman, is No. 3, and sophomore Tyler Lu is No. 4, someone Kessler says will surprise some people.

"Little Tyler Lu, he's under the radar," Kessler said. "He's our hidden gem. This kid's got a ton of talent."

Rounding out the team's top players are Kona Luu, Kevin Pham, Ryo Shimizu, Eric Tseng, Alex Min, Matt Urrutia, Michael Chang, Issei Hasagawa and Anthony Su. About the only threat to the Trojans' perfect record — at least until Ojai and CIF — are the junior tournaments that some players play, taking them away from University's matches.

"My philosophy is that this is not about me but about the kids," said Kessler, who teaches AP U.S. History. "They should have a high school experience, but the junior tournaments are important."

Kessler came to University from the east coast, he and his wife looking for better weather and change of lifestyle. He inherited a team in 2002 that already had a history of success.

The team struggled a bit in 2003 and '04, but returned to form. Kessler's long range goal for the team is to extend its streak of reaching the CIF Finals. The Trojans are going for six in a row this year, knowing that Santa Barbara once had a 10-year run, and Newport Harbor and Corona del Mar have had long streaks.

"That's another motivation," Kessler said. "We have a young team, but the big historical picture is what I'm trying to impress upon them."

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World