CLAREMONT — University High boys' tennis Coach John Kessler is always effusive in his praise of the Trojans' opponents, and that was again true Wednesday afternoon at The Claremont Club.
Kessler spoke of the excellence of the Pacific Coast League this year in boys' tennis. He praised the effort of league rival Corona del Mar. He even said he believed that CdM Coach Brian Ricker should be named Orange County Coach of the Year.
"He's had a tremendous year," Kessler said. "We're supposed to win, with our talent."
The Trojans winning again, that also was true.
University topped Corona del Mar, 13-5, to capture its third straight CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship.
The Trojans, who were the top seeds in CIF, have won Division 1 five of the last six years. They have also won 68 straight dual matches.
CdM was the No. 2 seed, yet came into the match knowing it was also the huge underdog. And, while there is a mutual respect between the programs, the rivalry has been somewhat frustrating at times to the Sea Kings.
"It's incredible," CdM senior Alex Murray said. "I just think it's not fair that we're in the finals of Division 1 and we can't even win a league title. But, I mean, that's just unfortunate that we're in the same league. They're just way too good. It's incredible what they do. They're just constantly winning, and they keep getting better. We think, 'OK, next year they're going to lose this guy, maybe we can get closer.' But, no, they just keep getting better."
University (21-0) beat CdM (21-4) for the fourth time this season, also including twice in league and the finals of the Dana Hills tournament. This time Ricker tried something new, electing to stack his doubles teams.
The plan was to sweep doubles and win at least one singles set, tough to do with the Trojans' singles players of junior Gage Brymer, sophomore Drew Dawson and junior Stefan Menichella.
"That was the plan going into today, having one kind of lucky match out of the nine singles and somehow we'd win 10-8," CdM senior Dan Anastos said. "But that's a lot to hope for."
Corona del Mar still kept things interesting early.
Sophomore Josh Kliger battled Dawson in the first round before falling, 6-4, at No. 2 singles. Still, CdM got big wins from the No. 1 doubles team of Murray and Henry Gordon, as well as the No. 3 team of Zach Williams and Andrew Nguyen.
CdM was looking to tie the match at 3-3. But, at No. 2 doubles, University's Skyler Butts and Konrad Kozlowski battled back from down a break to force a tiebreaker against CdM junior Alec Adamson and sophomore Carson Williams.
With a large crowd watching, Adamson and Williams went ahead 4-0 in the tiebreaker, but Butts and Kozlowski rallied for a 7-6 (7-5) victory. This gave the Trojans a 4-2 sets advantage and they never looked back.
"I didn't expect it," Butts said of CdM stacking doubles. "It was a big surprise to me … We just had to put our heads down and focus."
Kessler said CdM used the right strategy by trying to stack doubles, but he also called the first-round tiebreaker win pivotal to his team's success.
"I think that's a match we had to have," Kessler said. "[If it's] 3-3 after the first round, yes I think our singles would have kept winning, but we had a lot of pressure in doubles and CdM was playing well."
Butts, who will be playing college tennis nearby at Claremont-McKenna, swept in doubles with Kozlowski. Even with stacking doubles, CdM won just five of nine sets.
The Trojans soon seized control. They also swept the nine singles sets, and none except Kliger's first set were closer than 6-2. Brymer, a junior who is a two-time Ojai CIF singles champion and two-time CIF Individuals singles champion, earned a "triple bagel" with scores of 6-0, 6-0, 6-0.
Murray and Gordon won two doubles sets for the Sea Kings, making their first CIF finals appearance since 2003. So did Adamson and Carson Williams, while Zach Williams and Nguyen won one of three.
Ricker preferred to look at the positives of CdM's big season, which included a big 12-6 semifinal victory over Harvard-Westlake on the road and a 14-4 victory over Division 2 champion Palm Desert. The Sea Kings also beat two other rivals in Santa Barbara (12-6) and Palos Verdes (12-6). Ricker said if he would have asked his players before the year if they'd want such a season, even knowing CdM would lose to Uni in the finals, the result would have been unanimous.
"Every single player would have raised their hand and said, 'Yeah, that would be a great season,'" Ricker said. "We're undefeated, except Uni. Uni just has a very special team right now."
Kessler is appreciative of the talent in his program, as well as the rivalry with Corona del Mar.
"It's kind of like when you have Angels-Dodgers or Rangers-Islanders," Kessler said. "When you have teams that are in the same city, you can throw out their records. It's just such a great rivalry. I think the boys from both teams really respect each other. They know and like each other.
"We've played them so many different times, and I think it's a pretty clean rivalry, which is kind of rare at that level. There's a mutual respect for both programs. Brian is not only a good friend, but he's one of the coaches that I have to really prepare for, because Brian's a great coach."
The Trojans' great talent still took first yet again.