Lightning reigns

CLAREMONT — They came for a tennis match and a World Cup celebration broke out.

Dozens of Sage Hill School students piled onto the court at The Claremont Club on Wednesday afternoon. They joined in a mob near the baseline and started the familiar soccer chant, "Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole."

Celebrations like that don't usually happen at tennis matches, but this was no ordinary tennis match. The Lightning boys' tennis players at the middle of that celebration had just made history.

They were CIF champions, holding on for a 10-8 victory over Valencia of Placentia in the Southern Section Division III championship match.

It is the first boys' tennis CIF title in program history, and the first CIF team title for a boys' sport at Sage Hill, period. The 2011 Sage boys join the 2005 girls' tennis and girls' volleyball teams as the only three Lightning squads to ever take home the CIF championship hardware.

Sage Hill senior captain Andrew Kurzweil called it probably the biggest sporting event in school history. Anyone could tell how much Kurzweil wanted it, playing with what he said was either an abdominal strain or hernia. He served underhand and avoided overhead shots, but still came up with a sweep with sophomore Ryan Lee at No. 2 doubles.

Like all of the Lightning players, they really fed off the crowd support. Athletic director J.R. Tolver said 108 students came up in rooter buses. It was a huge total for a school with just 430 students, not counting notable Lightning tennis alumni also present like Alex Koeberle, Julia Blakeley and Jaclyn Smrecek.

"We had more people here than at a football game, and it's Division III tennis," Kurzweil said. "That's not supposed to happen, but we were hyping up the match. We set up Facebook events, sent out emails … They didn't come to the match because of tennis, but once they got here they got really into it. They really helped us a lot. I give Mr. [Head of school Gordon] McNeill a lot of credit for letting the fans come."

Those fans — including several dressed up in bright full-body suits and another wearing a gorilla costume — hung on every point in the final set on-court. Sage Hill's No. 1 doubles team of senior Kevin Marshack and junior Alex Manolakas were playing the Valencia duo of Daniel Kim and Lindsey Youngquist. The Lightning (20-5) clung to a 9-8 sets lead, but the teams were tied in games. That meant that if Valencia could win the final set, the Lions (20-4) would clinch the title.

It looked like Kim and Youngquist would do it, as they were up a break and serving at 4-3. But Marshack and Manolakas broke Youngquist's serve before Manolakas held at love, giving Sage Hill a 5-4 lead.

"It was tough, but I don't think we felt too nervous," Manolakas said.

The big-serving Kim double-faulted to create a set point then netted a shot, as Sage Hill took the narrow victory. Sage Hill Coach A.G. Longoria watched his No. 1 team run its season dual-match record to 44-2 after yet another sweep.

"You know, they've lost three matches all year," Longoria said. "One at Ojai in the third round, one against Santa Margarita Catholic where they were up 5-2 and one match against St. Margaret's, after we'd already clinched it. If I had to pick a team to be out there — besides Robbe — it would be those guys. You can almost take it to the bank. They really came through all year."

Robbe is Sage's top singles player, junior Robbe Simon. Longoria again put Simon in a different position than No. 1 in the title match. This time it wasn't at No. 3 singles like against Cerritos, but at No. 2 singles.

The goal was to give the Lightning a 4-2 lead early. That was accomplished after Simon and fellow junior Denis Cirit came up with big singles wins in the first round, Marshack and Manolakas won and Kurzweil and Lee stormed back from a 3-0 deficit for a 6-4 victory.

Simon, who lost just one dual-match set all year, was lights out again. His set against Valencia junior Jonathan Hammel was supposed to be close but Simon breezed to a 6-2 victory. He said he tried something new, making a small mark on the front of his right shoe and looking down at it to remind himself what he was trying to accomplish.

"Before I even knew it, the match was over and I was shaking his hand," Simon said. "I stuck with my game plan … [I was trying to] just hit to his backhand. He was a little off and I was trying to just make him hit that one more shot."

Simon's win in the second round helped give Sage Hill a 7-5 lead. The Lightning, making their first CIF final appearance on the boys' side, never trailed in the match. But Valencia Coach Mike McCall told an onlooker his Tigers just needed to win two of the final three doubles sets, and Longoria was taking nothing for granted.

The only other time Sage Hill played Valencia was when the girls fell, 10-8, in the CIF Division IV title match in 2006. Longoria said that remains the only match — boys or girls — where one of his Sage teams was up, 4-2, and lost the match.

"He's a good coach," Longoria said. "He almost did it again."

Instead, the No. 3-seeded Lightning denied the No. 4 Tigers, the Empire League champions. Valencia lost in the Division III final for the third straight year, despite singles players Hammel and Brandon Chang each taking two of three sets and the Lions sweeping Sage Hill's No. 3 doubles team.

Longoria said it's rare for a team to win a CIF team title on its first try, but his senior-laden team is used to pressure situations. The past two years Sage Hill had lost in the semifinals, once on games and once in a super-tiebreaker.

"They were motivated and also more used to the pressure, even though they'd never been here," he said.

Kurzweil knew what the CIF title meant. He held the championship plaque tightly in his arms — decidedly not over his head — after it was presented to the Lightning.

"I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to play in this match," Kurzweil said. "I didn't practice all week and I hadn't hit a ball since [the semifinal win over] Cerritos [on May 24]. I came out and I could not shake the pain or block it out. It was tough, but eventually adrenaline kicked in. We had to have 150 fans rooting for us, which is huge. I didn't want to lose in front of them.

"Nothing was going to stop us from winning this title."


CIF Southern Section Division III

Championship match

Sage Hill 10, Valencia 8

Singles – Cirit (SH) def. Pham, 6-2, lost to Wong, 1-6, lost to Hammel, 0-6; Simon (SH) won, 6-0, 6-1, 6-2; Rapport (SH) lost, 1-6, 0-6, 0-6.

Doubles – Marshack-Manolakas (SH) def. Nguyen-Im, 6-2, def. J. Kim-Kelkar, 6-2, def. D. Kim-Youngquist, 6-4; Kurzweil-Lee (SH) won, 6-0, 6-4, 6-4; Batten-Magliarditi (SH) lost, 2-6, 4-6, 3-6.

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