Girls' Tennis: Peninsula too strong

Corona del Mar High junior Riley Gerdau heard some last-minute advice Wednesday, as she stood on the tennis court waiting for her second set of the afternoon to begin.

The words came from her father, Ken.

"Take it easy on her," Ken said to Riley, and she couldn't help but smile.

Gerdau was playing Peninsula High sophomore Ena Shibahara, who is ranked No. 1 in the country in the girls' 16s.

The Panthers also are ranked No. 1, in CIF Southern Section Division 1. They showed the Sea Kings why.

Peninsula started strong and earned a 12-6 victory over No. 4 CdM, handing the hosts their first loss of the season.

Shibahara and senior Annika Ringblom each swept for Peninsula (7-0), winning 36 of 38 games. Last year, they teamed in doubles to advance to the CIF Individuals championship match.

But the real story against CdM also came in doubles. The Panthers also picked up six of nine sets against CdM, whose starting doubles teams had lost just two total sets prior to Wednesday.

Peninsula's No. 2 team of senior Gala Strong and freshman Sarina Liu swept, and the No. 1 team of junior Risa Nakagawa and sophomore Sara Khattab won twice before being subbed out.

Nakagawa and Khattab had to work to earn their two victories against CdM (5-1), posting two come-from-behind wins. In the first round, they rallied to hand CdM seniors Kenzie Purcifull and Kimmia Naaseh their first loss of the year, 6-4. In the second round, they won the last five games to earn a 7-5 win over CdM sophomore Siena Sharf and freshman Jasie Dunk.

Sharf and Dunk also had lost to Strong and Liu, 7-5, in the first round. So although Peninsula had a 9-3 lead after two rounds, it easily could have been 6-6.

"I feel like we're off to a great start this season," CdM Coach Brian Ricker said. "In the beginning, I thought we were going to have strong doubles teams, and each match I become more and more of a true believer in how good they are. But [Peninsula], top to bottom, is the most talented team that I think we've seen in a couple of years. The No. 1 and 2 singles are highly ranked, and all six doubles players are ranked players who play very good doubles.

"The negative of this is that we lost. That's a very strong team that deserves their No. 1 ranking. The positive is that we played them pretty tough. We lost three legitimate sets and we were up in all three. It would have been 6-6 had we [won those], so that's kind of exciting. Easily the best positive about this is that it's going to prepare us for upcoming matches ... next week's a hard week."

Purcifull and Naaseh, as well as Sharf and Dunk, each earned a victory over Peninsula's No. 3 team, while Taylor Fogarty and Erica Chen beat a substitute team in the third round. And CdM's Lauren Thaxter, Gerdau and Shelby Anderson also swept the Panthers at No. 3 singles.

But that was all of the sets that CdM could muster, even as Peninsula played without injured senior singles player Jasmine Hosseini (wrist). Especially with Hosseini, Peninsula Coach Mike Hoeger said this might be the best team he's had in a decade, since the last time Peninsula won CIF in 2003.

"The girls rallied today without her, so that was nice," Hoeger said. "We mixed our No. 2 and 3 doubles teams around a little bit. They played very well, surprisingly well, so we couldn't be happier. We've been planning for this match, because we know how good their doubles [teams] are. Brian's doubles are always good ... but we're fortunate to have our No. 1 doubles team [Nakagawa and Khattab] back from last year. Even though they were down in both sets, I've got a lot of confidence that they've been in tough situations a lot. We needed them to come back, and they did."

Ricker said he has been preaching to his doubles teams that they always need to be aggressively practicing their strategies, even against the weaker teams that CdM plays. He said his team did better at playing its game Wednesday, compared to the past two years against Peninsula.

But at times, the Panthers' doubles players hit the ball with just too much pace. That might be expected with someone like Nakagawa, who is ranked No. 66 in the Southern California 18s and showed off her booming serve. CdM has no players ranked in the top 100 in Southern California.

"When people hit harder than we're used to, it's harder for us to do our strategy," said Naaseh, who typically tries to set up Purcifull's poaching with her solid ground strokes. "It's harder for me to hit shots that Kenzie can poach on, because their shots are so hard. We have to kind of mix up our game, which is also more difficult when their shots are so hard."

CdM will have to rebound quickly. The Sea Kings play host to Irvine in their Pacific Coast League opener on Thursday. And next week is indeed tough, as CdM plays at Woodbridge on Tuesday, is at home against Mira Costa on Wednesday and travels to rival University on Oct. 3. Mira Costa is ranked right behind CdM at No. 5 in Division 1, and University is No. 2.

Ricker said the experience of playing Peninsula could reap benefits for his team, especially the doubles players.

"I think they've done a good job," Ricker said. "This was a big improvement from the last two years. The last two years was, 'Oh my God, they're hitting it right at us too hard, they go down our alley and we can't rally with them, and I can't poach because they hit too hard.' This year, we played our game and we were in quite a few of the sets. We've definitely made progress against a high-level, very talented team like this."

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