IRVINE — The chess match began before the tennis match Tuesday.
Corona del Mar High girls' tennis coach Brian Ricker and Northwood coach Eric Keith each wanted their top singles player to avoid the other team's best player in the opening round. So Ricker put junior Lauren Thaxter at No. 2 singles, and Keith put junior Chloe Pham at No. 2 singles as well.
Of course, the strategy doesn't work when both coaches are on the same page. Thaxter and Pham still played in the first round.
Thaxter earned a tough victory over Pham. The CdM team win wasn't as tough by the end, as the Sea Kings pulled off a 13-5 victory at Northwood High in the important Pacific Coast League match.
Corona del Mar (6-3, 1-1 in league) perhaps established itself as the top contender for the No. 2 spot in league. The top three teams in the league are guaranteed CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoff berths; last year CdM finished fourth in league behind University, Woodbridge and Northwood and missed CIF for the first time in recent memory.
Thaxter, who missed the league opener against Uni due to sickness, earned a 6-4 win over Pham on Tuesday. Pham had defeated Thaxter in three tough sets last November in the PCL singles semifinals.
"To be honest, we're not used to Chloe losing," Keith said. "That's not something that happens very often, so when she loses, I think the team looks at that and gets a little disheartened. It's unfortunate that was the first round, because we just kind of spiraled a little bit from that point. You know, Lauren had a good strategy, she played well and had some good shots against Chloe. She deserved it, but it was hard for the team to see that and stay upbeat."
The Sea Kings definitely were upbeat after they put the Timberwolves (8-4, 1-1) in a tough position. Senior Olivia Dajee also earned a singles win in the first round. The doubles teams of Kenzie Purcifull and Siena Sharf, as well as Taylor Fogarty and Kimmia Naaseh, also were victorious as CdM took a 4-2 lead.
They increased their sets lead to 8-4 after two rounds, capped by Dajee's 6-4 win over Northwood sophomore Shreya Kumar. Both teams subbed in the third round.
"I thought it could be a really close match, because we weren't sure if Lauren would play or not," Dajee said. "But we're definitely better than last year. We had a lot of confidence going into this match."
Fogarty, a sophomore, and Naaseh, a junior, swept at No. 3 doubles. Purcifull and Sharf won a pair of sets, as did Sophia Chen with partners Skylar Dapp and Shelby Anderson.
Thaxter won two singles sets before being subbed out for senior Shea O Hill, who also won. Riley Gerdau also won a singles set for Corona del Mar, which snapped Northwood's six-match winning streak.
Northwood's Juanna Xie and Elizabeth Yu won their first two doubles sets of the match before they were edged by Fogarty and Naaseh, 7-5, in the last set on court. Pham also won twice for Northwood.
"They have a good team, there's no question about it, but this is a team we thought we matched up well against," Keith said. "It was just hard. We had maybe three or four sets that could have gone our way and didn't. Once they don't go our way, then girls start to get deflated a little bit. We kind of lost our focus there about halfway through the second round ... [but] they played well. They hit their shots and they finished points, which we didn't do today."
CdM showed Northwood its improvement this season.
"It was great, because we lost to them in a really close match last year then we beat them [in league]," Naaseh said. "So we knew coming into this it would be close, but we played our best."