Young guns bolster CdM boys' tennis

They are young, but what they lack in years they make up for in tennis acumen.

They have distinctly different styles, but all three of them have been victorious against the vast majority of their opponents.

Meet sophomore Carson Williams and freshmen Henry Gordon and Chaz Downing. You can call them young guns for the No. 2-seeded Corona del Mar High tennis team, which plays top-seeded defending champion University in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship match at 11 a.m. Wednesday at The Claremont Club.

This talented trio of underclassmen has helped CdM earn its first title match appearance in nine years.

Gordon (ranked No. 15 in the Southern California 16s) and Downing (No. 6 in the 14s) have been stud freshmen all year for Coach Brian Ricker's squad. Gordon has a 50-12 overall record in singles and doubles for CdM this season, and Downing is 49-8. And their presence causes a ripple effect, too.

"Not only do those two top-ranked kids cause a lot of problems in singles, but then it allows you to bump good tennis players who would normally be singles players into doubles," Ricker said. "Alex Murray is a good example of someone who's played four years of doubles at CdM. Then you have good athletes who you can mold into very good doubles players ... it's a double whammy.

"At practice, we have so many good players, so the senior doubles players who are now pretty good tennis players, the Zachs [Williams] and Dans [Anastos], they get to hit against Henry and Chaz. Henry and Chaz like hitting against the older boys because they hit harder. Even if they can't beat them in singles, they kind of hit a different ball with a little more pace behind it. It just makes for a very competitive situation in practice."

Both players are extremely comfortable playing singles, but versatile enough to be great in doubles as well. They also have fit in well to the team format of high school tennis, much different than the grind of United States Tennis Assn. junior tournaments where a player competes solely for himself and rankings points.

"I like it better," said Gordon, who advanced to the CIF Individuals doubles semifinals with Murray before losing to the eventual champions from Palm Desert. "Tournaments, there's a lot of pressure on just me. [In high school] you're in it with the team. It just seems more fun."

The versatility has been big. Before the Sea Kings' 12-6 CIF semifinal victory over Harvard-Westlake on May 22, Downing wasn't feeling well and had bad blisters on his feet. So Ricker slid Downing into doubles, where he won two of three sets with Murray. And Carson Williams, at No. 3 singles, also won a couple of big sets.

"It's nice," Downing said. "It's no different, basically, whether I play singles or Henry plays singles. Our abilities are so equal that it doesn't really matter who plays singles."

Carson Williams has a 60-12 overall record this year for the Sea Kings. The record might be surprising to Williams, who was ranked top 50 in the country in boys' 14 singles when he got to CdM. Last year, he concentrated on high school tennis during his freshman year.

Then he went to live with his father in Coeur d'Alane, Idaho for about six months in the summer and fall before returning to CdM in January. Williams said his father, Marty, helped him improve his overall fitness, but he only played tennis a handful of times while in Idaho.

But Williams hasn't missed a beat. During one impressive stretch during this season, he and No. 1 singles player Alec Adamson each beat top players in Troy's Caryl Hernandez and Northwood's Julian Ruffin. Williams has also began playing in 18s tournaments recently.

"I didn't expect to come back as one of the top players," he said. "I thought I was just going to be a doubles player. Usually, I get really rusty, but I guess I didn't get rusty this time."

No rust among this trio of players. And they all have different styles, which makes it difficult on opponents. Ricker said Downing used to be a primarily defensive player and is starting to add more offense. Williams is more of a crafty player with a good touch, while Gordon is known for his punishing ground strokes.

"Then you add Alec into that mix, with his very unique game, and it's just hard on opposing teams," Ricker said. "They're all grinders, all a little gritty and all hit a little bit different. That helped us this year. That helped us against Harvard-Westlake. I felt like we wore them down, because they definitely were tired in the third round."

And, when you have players with so much junior tournament experience, they definitely mean business as well.

"They can't be that good without having a strong work ethic and motivated in practice," Ricker said. "High school tennis is not a private lesson, so kids need to come in and be semi-self motivated. Especially as freshmen, they bring a whole different atmosphere to the practice, because they're used to more private lessons. Maybe the groups that they play in at the academies, it's more serious. They bring the same seriousness and competitiveness into practice. They're used to focusing and working hard."

The Sea Kings will definitely have to work hard to beat University, which is the two-time defending CIF champion and has not lost a match since losing the 2009 CIF final to Thousand Oaks. Williams, Gordon and Downing know they are heavy underdogs against their Pacific Coast League rivals on Wednesday.

"It's going to be tough," Williams said. "Everything's going to need to go perfect for us to win that. I mean, it's possible. We do have a chance."

University won the two league matches, 12-6 and 13-5. However, the first match at Uni was competitive, as the Trojans were up just 7-5 after two rounds before dominating the third.

If one thing is for sure, the Sea Kings' young guns are also not intimidated.

"I think it's going to be fairly intense," Gordon said. "I think everyone's going to come out ready, and it should be high-quality stuff. Hopefully we can get a lead early."

Twitter: @mjszabo

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