VALLEY GLEN — The bus ride to Los Angeles Valley College is getting pretty familiar for Corona del Mar High tennis coach Brian Ricker.
Ricker traveled there twice during the girls' season last fall, only to have his Sea Kings lose to eventual CIF Southern Section Division I champion Campbell Hall of North Hollywood. The second time it was a season-ending loss in a Division I semifinal match.
On Tuesday afternoon the CdM boys played a different opponent in a different playoff round. Even the venue was different as the match was played at the new courts on the south side of the campus, only a few months old.
But it was still Los Angeles Valley College. More like Death Valley to the Sea Kings.
No. 3-seeded CdM's season ended at the hands of Harvard-Westlake, which posted a 10-8 victory in the CIF Southern Section Division I quarterfinal match.
"I'm 0 for 3 here this year," said Ricker, who knew Tuesday's result was not really much of an upset at all. He's been saying all year that a quarterfinal match would be difficult, with so many of the top teams capable of beating each other.
"I knew it was going to be close," Ricker said. "I felt like to get to the finals, you're going to have to win two 9-9s [matches] or 10-8s, two close ones. The close sets didn't go our way today. They were just a little too tough for us in that second round."
The teams were tied, 3-3, after a round. The Sea Kings (17-5) were feeling good about their chances, too, since they swept in doubles that first round, improving to a combined 21-0 record in the playoffs.
But then came the second round, where the Wolverines (18-3) stepped up. First it was Matt Wagner and Harrison Kalt beating CdM's No. 1 team of Carter Wheatley and Alex Murray, 6-4. Then Paul Kacik and Zach Williams fell to Adam Williams and Dylan Eisner, 6-4. Harvard-Westlake's No. 3 team, Roy Murdock and Max Rothman, then toughed out a 7-6 (7-5) victory over CdM's duo of Ismaen Aboubakare and Alec Adamson.
Suddenly, the score was 8-4 Harvard-Westlake after the second round and CdM was reeling.
Now Harvard-Westlake Coach Chris Simpson was feeling good. He said his boys' program, which advanced to the semifinals for the third straight year, hadn't played CdM at all since losing in a CIF Division V semifinal match in 2000. In that match, he said the Wolverines had taken an early lead before top-seeded CdM rallied.
"[Eleven] years, I've been waiting for this," Simpson said. "That second round was everything. CdM looked invincible the first round in doubles. I didn't know if we were going to get a set, but then we just talked about the things we needed to improve on, the positioning and execution. It makes a hell of a difference. We're suddenly winning all three [sets] and that was really, really huge for us."
Corona del Mar still nearly came back in the last round, even after Harvard-Westlake junior Jackson Frons won his third singles set of the day to give Harvard-Westlake its ninth set. CdM needed to win all three of the remaining doubles sets in an attempt to even the score, 9-9, and force the teams to count games.
The Sea Kings nearly did, as their top two teams both won and Williams and Kacik rallied from a 4-1 deficit against Wagner and Kalt to make it interesting. But the Wolverines duo earned a key service break at 4-3 before the Boston College-bound Wagner served out the set – and the match – for Harvard-Westlake.
CdM senior Shane Korber won two of three sets in singles, and freshman Carson Williams also won his last set to aid the Sea Kings' rally that fell just short.
If it could have managed to win just one more of several close sets, Corona del Mar could have won on games.
As it ended up, Harvard-Westlake had the 10-8 match win and a 77-75 games advantage.
But Ricker said nobody on his team has reason to hang his head.
"We had some really good wins this year," Ricker said. "To beat Woodbridge twice, to beat Peninsula once, [Palos Verdes] is undefeated and we tied them 9-9 … maybe we peaked too early. But this is a team that, on paper, shouldn't have those wins."