There haven't been too many boys' tennis teams that have challenged University High in the past 10 years or so. In fact, Uni coach John Kessler's biggest challenge really isn't an opposing team at all.
Considering that Trojans have a dual-match record of 105-1 over the past five years, one might think Kessler's toughest opponent is complacency.
Oh, sure, talent will overcome a lot, and Uni is always loaded with it. But Kessler's Trojans also overcome complacency, finding motivation in ways most teams can only imagine.
"For the boys, what's keeping them motivated is the bigger picture," said Kessler, now in his 11th season at Uni.
Kessler likes to point to Santa Barbara High's 10 consecutive CIF Southern Section Division 1 championships as one of those bigger-picture goals. And while Uni is going for "just" its third straight Division 1 crown this season, the Trojans are also going for their seventh CIF title under Kessler's tutelage in 11 seasons.
Still, championships don't happen until the season is over. What about the challenge during the season, that match-by-match grind throughout the season?
Well, that's easy. With their victory over Beckman on Thursday, the Trojans have won 61 consecutive dual matches. Their last loss came in their final match of the 2009 season — the CIF championship match against Thousand Oaks. Since then, they're 61-0.
"The Streak" is well-known on the Uni campus, even if it isn't talked about much.
"We approach it one match at a time, using a lot of guys and keeping it fresh," Kessler said of his deep talent pool. "We can focus match by match, but we are aware [of the streak] — we don't want it to consume them, but we are aware of the bigger picture.
"It's the JV team, too. The JV team hasn't lost a match in seven years. The whole program is aware of it. And it is a weight, it's definitely a weight, and sometimes it's a pain in the neck. It's like, 'I know the loss is coming, so let's get the loss out of the way and let's just move on.' On the other hand, you want to preserve and protect. It's kind of a fine line what we're walking to be honest with you."
So Kessler approaches each season with the idea of making his players better, not just winning matches. It's just that when you win all the time, the measuring stick is not always so clear. How do you know if you're getting better if you were winning all the time already?
"We actually had that conversation [earlier this week]," Kessler said. "With doubles we're trying to implement certain systems and the boys do those things, but in the back of their minds, I think they know that we're winning the match, so I don't see the sense of urgency to pick up the systems."
Kessler's said his girls' team last fall, a successful program but not like the boys, had that sense of urgency and reached the CIF championship match for the first time in school history last November.
This year's boys' team is 16-0 overall in dual matches and 8-0 in the Pacific Coast League. The Trojans won the Dana Hills Coastal Tournament and finished second in the National All-American Tournament, losing 4-5 to national powerhouse The Menlo School of Atherton. Uni, though, was without No. 1 singles player Gage Brymer, who was playing in a supernational tournament in Alabama, and No. 3 singles player Tyler Lu, who was out with an injury. No. 2 Stefan Menichella played with a cast on his broken left arm.
"I don't think there's a team in the country that can beat us when we have all our guys," Kessler said.
It's hard to argue considering the talent and work ethic of Kessler's top players. Brymer is a junior and the defending CIF section champion. He is ranked No. 1 in Southern California and No. 7 in the nation for boys' 18 singles by the United State Tennis Assn.
"The kid trains very hard at the school and then he has his own personal workout at night," Kessler said. "And then he gets up and runs at 5:30, 6 in the morning. I've just never seen a kid as motivated and committed and disciplined as Gage.
"The bottom line is he puts in the hours. You can't necessarily tell if he's playing his first set or his third set because he's in such great shape. His footwork is astonishing and he's got a big forehand."
Brymer is so good that his high school matches have simply become training workouts.
"We're trying to evolve his game and add some other components to his toolbox," Kessler said. "Because now as you move up to the 18s, the guys hit as hard as he does, so we're tying to go with serve and volley, and other components. If you look at his scores, he's got a lot of 6-3s and 6-4s because we're trying to elevate his game and not worry about winning."
Like Brymer, Menichella's game and attitude has Kessler gushing.
"Stef is an absolute student of the game," Kessler said. "His court IQ is probably the highest I've seen in a kid. He's a very, very smart kid and he has a drive to get better. He also will get up at 6 in the morning and hit 200-300 balls from a ball machine before school.
"He's unbelievably driven and he has some natural attributes. He's 6-4, he's a big boy and he's finally catching up with his body. He grew so quickly that I think he's filling in to that body, especially with his feet. He has an incredible work ethic, he loves the game and he's unbelievably smart."
No. 3 Lu is out with an elbow injury, but Kessler said if Lu was healthy he might pass Menichella at No. 2 and challenge Brymer for the No. 1 spot.
Lu is ranked No. 11 in the boys' 16 singles in Southern California by the USTA. Menichella is ranked No. 29 in So Cal for boys' 18s
Drew Dawson, Kessler said, is having a phenomenal season. Dawson is ranked No. 16 in boys' 16s in Southern California.
Kessler said what makes his team's success on the court even more impressive is that his players are doing it while going to school at the No. 1-ranked public school in the nation for academics, as chosen by Newsweek magazine last year.
"These kids are great students and they're great athletes," Kessler said. "That's the story that never gets told. These kids go to a school that's one of the toughest in the nation and they're also able to go on the court and do what they do. To balance those two, I think that's the hidden story.
"Most top athletes are either home-schooled or go to schools where academically they're given passes. Most of these kids are taking [Advanced Placement] courses at Uni."
And that means they might be taking a class from Kessler, who teaches AP U.S. History. Kessler has a decade of success at Uni, but he has no plans to take his career anywhere else.
"I'm a high school teacher first, a tennis coach a distant second," he said. "As much as I love coaching, I love being a teacher more. To me, this is the perfect situation. I love being here and I love what we're doing."