CORONA DEL MAR — To be the best, you have to beat the best.
But first, you have to put yourself in a position to play the best.
The Corona del Mar High boys' tennis team gave itself that opportunity Wednesday afternoon in a CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinal match. The No. 2-seeded Sea Kings topped No. 3 Harvard-Westlake at home, 12-6, earning a trip back to the Division 1 final for the second straight year.
CdM will play its rival, three-time defending Division 1 champion University, for the title at 11:30 a.m. Friday at The Claremont Club.
University beat Santa Barbara, 15-3, in the other semifinal. The Trojans won their two meetings with CdM in league, 15-3 at CdM on March 19 and 13-5 at Uni on April 11.
"We'll have to come out really strong in the beginning," CdM senior captain Alec Adamson said. "They're really good when they play ahead, so everyone needs to get a fast start. We just need to go out there and play hard. We have nothing to lose, so we just have to be positive and really go for our shots. All the pressure's on them. It should be a really fun atmosphere. Our whole team's really excited for Friday."
The Sea Kings (22-2) were excited to play Harvard-Westlake again as well. It was the Wolverines (21-6) who eliminated CdM from the playoffs in a 2011 quarterfinal match. Last year, CdM also beat Harvard-Westlake in the semis.
Harvard-Westlake came into Wednesday's match with an interesting lineup. Coach Chris Simpson put his best singles player, sophomore Michael Genender, at No. 3 singles. And he put his best two doubles teams, Harrison Kalt and Dylan Eisner, as well as Max Rothman and Sam Hummel, at Nos. 2 and 3 doubles.
He hoped for a 4-2 lead after the first round. Instead, the match was tied 3-3. CdM sophomore Chaz Downing won the last big set at No. 2 singles, outlasting Jaird Meyer, 6-4.
"The first round was huge," said CdM junior Carson Williams, who again swept at No. 1 doubles with Josh Kliger. "They stacked, and we still kept it at three-all. That was huge. That was basically like going up 4-2 with a regular lineup. I think from that first round, we just built off that."
Downing and Bjorn Hoffmann each won a pair of singles sets for CdM, which seemed to get stronger as the match went on. The hosts won five sets in the second round to build an 8-4 advantage.
The Sea Kings built the lead to 12-4, before Harvard-Westlake won the match's final two sets.
The victories included a big 6-4 win over Genender by Adamson, who also swept. He surged to a 5-1 advantage over Genender, who battled back to 5-4.
With Adamson serving at 40-30, he ended the match with an ace out wide. An agitated Genender thought the serve was wide, but his "out" call was overruled by the umpire.
"I thought it clipped the line for sure, and that's what the umpire said," Adamson said.
It was a tough overrule on set point, but that set hardly dictated the outcome of the match.
One thing that was more key to Simpson was the impressive play of CdM's doubles teams. Kalt and Eisner, as well as Rothman and Hummel, each won twice. But Simpson complimented CdM's pairings, including Andrew Nguyen and Paul Kacik, as well as Pedro Fernandez and Samee Aboubakare.
"I thought CdM served very well all day today," Simpson said. "In doubles, they served extremely well, and it put a lot of pressure on our returns. Then it puts the pressure on our service games. If they're having easy service games and not facing a lot of breaks, there's an advantage, and you're at home.
"A lot of it goes down to who's going to dictate at the net. With our types of doubles teams, both schools have similar DNA in what we want to do ... At the end of the day, I thought the better team won. At least they have the daunting task to [beat] Uni, not us."
Simpson knows just how daunting it is. Harvard-Westlake played University close earlier this season, losing 10-8 on Feb. 26. However, the Trojans played that match without at least two of their top players, UCLA-bound Gage Brymer and Pepperdine-bound Stefan Menichella. Those players, plus Yale-bound Tyler Lu, give the Trojans a more-than formidable singles lineup in the title match.
"It's going to be hard to get singles sets," Simpson said. "Alec has to be pretty much perfect, and he can do it, because he's also going to want to go out as a senior on a high note. It'll be interesting. I think if CdM's doubles can improve ... I noticed in every set, every round there were little dips. If they just keep that focus all the way and are seriously relentless and perfect, they could do something in doubles possibly. If they serve the way they did today, that's going to help them."
CdM understands it will be the big underdog against University. But getting back to The Claremont Club is a huge accomplishment by itself.
It's the first time since 1998-99 that CdM has made back-to-back appearances in the CIF title match.
"I couldn't be more proud of the guys and the work they've put in, how strong they are as a team, not on the court but off the court," CdM Coach Jamie Gresh said. "They're just good kids, good student-athletes.
"I want us to go out on Friday and play aggressive and try to play our best tennis."