NEWPORT BEACH — The defending Academy League champion met an up-and-comer Tuesday afternoon at The Tennis Club.
Something had to gave in the boys' tennis match. Sage Hill Coach A.G. Longoria hoped it wouldn't be his Lightning on the short end against Crean Lutheran.
"I've predicted all along that Crean is going to dominate the Academy League over the next five years, because of where they are [Irvine] and how big they are and how fast they'll grow," Longoria said. "They're twice as good as they were last year, in one year."
It still wasn't enough against Sage, which won the key league match, 10-8.
The Lightning, the defending CIF Southern Section Division 3 champions and top-ranked in the division again, had enough to outlast No. 4 Crean Lutheran. Longoria wasn't sure that would be the case, especially since his team played without senior Denis Cirit, who was out sick.
Sage Hill (3-5, 2-0 in league) was just too strong in doubles. The Lightning won seven of nine doubles sets, including easy sweeps by the pairings of senior Alex Manolakas and sophomore Eric Magliarditi, as well as juniors Ryan Lee and Sam Sherman.
Sage senior Garrett Rapport and freshman David Kim beat Crean's No. 3 team, another key set win for Sage against Crean Lutheran (5-3, 0-2).
But the Saints won six singles sets, including a sweep by sophomore Nikolas Ramadan at No. 1 singles.
"They were gunning for us," Longoria said. "I'm sure that this is one of their goals [to beat Sage Hill], and I think they're pretty pleased with what they did. It's still a tall order [to beat us]; they'd have to tie us and win on games. And it could happen. I was worried without Denis."
The match was tied at 3-3 after the first round, but Sage took five of six sets in the second round to take a commanding 8-4 lead.
Sage senior Robbe Simon, coming off a strong Corona del Mar All-American Tournament that had him on the all-tournament team, also nearly swept. Longoria put Simon in the No. 3 spot, which meant he played Ramadan in his last set.
The Lightning already had a 10-7 advantage by the time that final set ended, but Simon's set against Ramadan was still compelling. Twice, the players argued loudly about line calls. Simon was broken serving at 5-5, but he broke Ramadan back to force a tiebreaker. But there Ramadan, who spent time last year at the prestigious Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, earned a 7-6 (7-3) victory.
"There was some controversy, obviously," Simon said. "You've got to deal with it. I thought it was a great match. He competed very well and he's a great player. I'm definitely not upset that I lost to him, [but] I'd like to get another shot at him. I'm looking forward to the next time I play him."
Sophomore Cole Solaas also won a set at No. 1 singles for the Lightning, trying to defend their league title. Last year the Lightning went a perfect 10-0 in the league, earning their only outright league title in program history.
It won't be easy to do it again. Sage still has to deal with rival St. Margaret's, which defeated Crean Lutheran by a wider margin, 12-6, last week. The Lightning had been scheduled to play at St. Margaret's on Friday, but Longoria said the match has been rescheduled for May 1.
The Lightning won't see the Tartans until April 20 at The Tennis Club. When they do, Manolakas has a plan.
"We're going to all wear our [CIF] rings to St. Margaret's to try to get in their heads a little bit," he said.
The king is still atop the throne, at least for now.