Canyon Crest tops Torrey Pines in historic CIF Tennis Championship final
In a season that wasn’t guaranteed to even get started, with a roster that was too big, playing a format that was unprecedented and using lineups that were too unorthodox, all while pegged as the consensus favorite, Coach Chris Black’s Canyon Crest Academy (CCA) tennis team reached the finish line Thursday, May 13. And the coed squad, utilizing each and every one of its 52 members along the way, completed its journey right where Black had quietly predicted it would—as CIF Open Division champions.
The final step was Thursday’s 14-3 triumph over league and neighborhood rival Torrey Pines at the Barnes Tennis Center in Point Loma. Regardless of what the scoreboard ultimately read, and in keeping with the spirit of this one-of-a-kind season, the outcome was seriously in doubt past the halfway juncture, despite the fact that Canyon Crest never trailed and was up by a whopping seven points when it clinched.
The winning coach was not worried about those details in the aftermath. “We’ve been talking about this goal for a year and six months ago we thought there was a coin flip’s chance we’d even have a season,” said Black. “Once we knew we would and it was going to be this novel coed experience, given the talent of both our boys and girls teams we thought, ‘Hey, we can do something really, truly historic here.
“To see it actually come to fruition was extremely gratifying. There were so many incredible sub-plots to this story and I’m so proud of this entire team for everything it’s accomplished.” Not the least of which was how it went about completing its competitive mission when things threatened to unravel.
The Ravens came out on fire. Led by by junior Zach Pellouchoud’s come-from-behind, 7-5, victory over Torrey Pines’ senior ace Alex Stafford at No. 1, the CCA boys’ swept their singles slate. Seniors Pramukh Shankar (No. 2) and Praneet Varade (No. 3), strictly doubles players during the regular season, accounted for the other two points . Junior Katie Codd, the defending CIF individual champion, junior Asha Gidwani and sophomore Elina Shalaev proved to be near perfect on the girls’ side while blanking Torrey Pines as well. The dual shut outs made it 6-0 CCA and left the Ravens just three points shy of sealing the verdict after the first round.
Everything was still proceeding per plan when the two teams split the first four doubles matches, leaving CCA in need of just one of the unconfirmed doubles points to secure the outcome. The Raven pair of senior co-captain Taylor Shimizu and Lillia Finnegan had set and championship point on their racket in No. 3 doubles and the No. 1 doubles tandem of defending CIF individual doubles champ Lyna Fowler and Gidwani was cruising at 5-2. The team result seemed all but determined. But in what seemed like the blink of an eye, the situation shifted dramatically.
Grace Chen and Lillian Kong of Torrey Pines not only rebuffed Shimizu-Finnegan’s match point at No. 3 but stormed back to take a 6-5 lead. In an even more improbable twist, freshman Natalia Mochernak and junior Micah Levy had turned the tables at No. 1 to force a seven-point tiebreaker. If the Falcons could close out both lingering doubles contests, they would remain alive heading into the third round’s five mixed doubles clashes where the match-ups seemed potentially tilted in their favor
Eventually, the championship pedigree of Fowler and Gidwani prevailed. Coming off an unseeded level III tournament victory in Las Vegas the previous weekend, the twosome made short work of the tiebreaker, finishing a 7-1 romp on a sharp volley at the net by Fowler. The left-handed heroine of the hour admitted to having her nerves tested down the stretch.
“I couldn’t feel my legs at one point and when it got to 5-all, I was just kind of thinking, ‘Please let me get a serve in,’ said Fowler, who’s been part of three consecutive CCA section-winning clubs (two girls). “It feels great to win ad third, especially it being such a special year with the coed format.
“We obviously had a little bit of pressure to win but it’s a really fun tournament and the fact that we were in the finals in the first place was pretty special.”
Shimizu-Finnegan also rebounded to take their match in a tiebreaker and with the championship banner in hand, Black and Torrey Pines Head Coach Don Chu adjusted their mixed doubles entries, prioritizing participation over points. For Black, there had been plenty of anxious moments as the doubles matches wound down.
“We had a pretty good idea that we would win most of the singles matches but I don’t know that 6-0 was on the radar,” said Black, sharing his thought process in terms of team strategy. “Given the singles numbers, we pivoted a little bit, decided to put a little more firepower into the doubles and try to take those nine points early. The downside of that is that we were left vulnerable in that last rotation (mixed doubles) and knew Torrey Pines might be loaded for bear.
“We won two tiebreakers at the end of that doubles rotation and those are usually 50-50 propositions. If we’d lost those two ‘coin flips,’ I think you might be interviewing Coach Don Chu as CIF champion right now.”
Canyon Crest reached the title match by knocking off La Jolla, 12-5, in the first round of the playoffs and then edging Del Norte, 9-8, in the semi-finals. Torrey Pines earned its berth with decisions over La Jolla Country Day (14-3) and Bishop’s (9-4).
Although it came at the outset of the afternoon, Black felt that Pellouchoud overcoming Stafford in singles was a “turning point” for his group. Pellouchoud, a relentless baseliner, had nipped Stafford in a tiebreaker during the regular season. He knew he would need to be at his best in the rematch.
“Alex is a very solid player and you have to be 100% focused to beat a player like that,” said Pellouchoud. “He’s very good from both sides so you’ve got to apply pressure and not let him dictate the play.
“It was definitely very nerve-wracking but the main thing, for me, is to just go out there and have fun because if you’re having fun, you play better tennis.”
Torrey Pines, which entered as the five-time defending CIF boys’ champions and in the process of rebuilding what’s been a perennial section challenger in the girls’ division, had the heart but not quite enough weapons this time around. Chu was quick to both praise his charges and recognize CCA as a worthy champion.
“CCA has the most talent in the county but I figured we had a puncher’s chance,” said Chu. “If we played exceedingly well, we had a shot—I know we’re good and we’re definitely game. But the cards didn’t go our way and at the end, CCA simply played better.
“Chris Black has made Canyon Crest a model program, not just because he wins, but because his kids are learning skills that will be important later in life, outside of the tennis court.”
All 52 of CCA’s student-athletes played in at least half a dozen matches during the season and over 30 got into a dozen or more, making them eligible for the CIF Playoffs. Twenty-seven of those players got onto the court in the Ravens’ three CIF outings.
For his part, Black was relieved to see his team reach its championship goal in this unique season while also knowing that they were able to do it in a distinctively “Canyon Crest” manner.
“This was a tough season, a really challenging season with everything that’s been going on,” said Black. “I’ve felt all along that the most important thing was just getting these kids out there and giving as many as we could something that resembled normalcy.
“One of the highlights all year was the outstanding job virtually everyone did of being flexible and patient with an overwhelmingly large roster and accepting new roles with grace and maturity. They put the team above themselves.
“At the same time, I know how significant winning this championship was to them. I’m a teacher and a teacher or coach always wants their kids to be happy.
“When we were on the precipice of it actually happening, we started backsliding a bit, I was very nervous for them. A high school championship lost is something that can stick with you. But the way they bounced back in the most critical stages—it was so gratifying to see and I’m so proud of them.”
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