CCA, Torrey Pines victorious in CIF tennis openers; Potential rematch looms

Freshman Alyssa Ahn has been a force at No. 1 singles for Torrey Pines.
Freshman Alyssa Ahn has been a force at No. 1 singles for Torrey Pines.
(Ken Grosse)

Tennis coaches and their players strive to avoid looking too far down the line, preferring to keep their focus on the next point, the next set, the next match. High school girls’ tennis fans, on the other hand, can dream ahead.

Eight teams earned spots in the CIF Open Division bracket but supporters of the sport in San Diego’s North County coastal region only have eyes for two—No. 1 seed Canyon Crest and No. 2 seed Torrey Pines. Two wins apiece would be needed to put that pair in the CIF Championship match, Thursday at the Barnes Tennis Center where first serve is slated for 1:00 PM.

Both teams rolled out of the post-season gate in impressive fashion Tuesday getting halfway to the finals by coasting to Quarterfinal wins on their home courts. Coach Chris Black’s CCA outfit went undefeated in the first rotation en route to a 15-3 decision over eighth-seeded Patrick Henry while Coach Don Chu’s Torrey crew knocked off seventh seed La Jolla in similar fashion, 14-4. Each made liberal use of their rosters after building early leads.

Lyna Fowler and Elina Shalaev both went 3-0 for the Ravens in singles play and the doubles tandem of Lillian Finnegan and Yule Kang did likewise. Over at Torrey Pines, precocious freshman Alyssa Ahn, and sophomores Natalia Mochernak and Rebecca Kong each notched two singles triumphs before retiring. The doubles combos of Grace Chen-Anna Ding and Carol Tu-Micah Levy also collected two wins.

Falcon sophomore Natalia Mochernak
Falcon sophomore Natalia Mochernak
(Ken Grosse)

Chu liked what he saw from his charges in their playoff opener and sees the culture he’s instilled translating into the performance on the court. “Our kids played really well today,” he said. “What I think makes a difference for our team is that the kids truly play out of a love for each other which somehow is easier than playing just for yourself.

“Tennis can be a lonely, individual sport but knowing you’re supported by your team, which is like a family, makes it easier to perform.” Next up for the Falcons are Wednesday’s (Oct. 27) semi-finals against Westview, the No. 3 seed whose lineup includes senior Kaila Barksale, the defending CIF singles champ.

Meanwhile, Canyon Crest will host fourth-seeded Del Norte, a team the Ravens narrowly defeated (10-8) in September. While both Chu and Black were clearly prioritizing their semi-final opponents, the potential title clash between the North County Coastal League and Del Mar neighborhood rivals has a fascinating edge on many levels.

Torrey Pines' Rebecca Kong went undefeated in two matches vs. La Jolla.
Torrey Pines’ Rebecca Kong went undefeated in two matches vs. La Jolla.
(Ken Grosse)

Torrey Pines has been the measuring stick in San Diego girls’ tennis for decades, racking up 25 consecutive section championships, including the first four in the Open Division (2014-17). That streak was snapped in 2018 by Canyon Crest, which made it two straight a year later. In last year’s pandemic-driven one-off mixed boys-girls combined season, CCA nipped Torrey Pines in a thrilling finale.

In recent seasons the battle between the two has been loosely characterized as Torrey’s elite talent against CCA’s depth. While that may have had some truth in the past, it feels like the two teams are now occupying similar ground.

They’ve met four times this season with Torrey prevailing in two “A” meetings, featuring primarily the top players from both schools and CCA coming out on top in two “B” meetings.

In Fowler, Shalaev and senior Asha Gidwani, Canyon Crest certainly has the weapons and lineup flexibility to make it a three-peat but the 14-year-old Ahn may be the best player on either side. A full coverage baseliner whose physical skills are matched by her tactical acumen and mental toughness, she shapes up to be a serious contender for the CIF singles crown to be contested next week at Balboa Tennis Center. She could also provide a difficult stumbling block for Black when it comes to lineup “game-planning.” Coupled with the crafty Mochernak, that’s a potent 1-2 punch at the top of the Torrey squad.

The two coaches are both confident but respectful in terms of the talent, the rivalry and the huge step still to be taken before they would meet again.

“We’re going to have to play really well against Westview which not only has a player like Barksdale but solid depth,” said Chu, a relative newcomer in his second year as head coach at Torrey Pines. “I think we’re up to the challenge and if we’re fortunate enough to get to Thursday, we would expect to meet CCA.

“They’re the champs, until they’re dethroned. Their team is a credit to the school in that they play hard, with dignity—the way the game should be played.”

Like Chu, Black, who’s been with the Canyon Crest program since its inception, is taking first things first. “We’re not overlooking Del Norte, they always give us a great match and I expect no different this time around,” said Black. “That said, I feel like if we play our game, a trip to the final is well within our reach.

“Playing Torrey Pines for the Championship is something we talked about at the beginning of the season. They’re one of the best teams in Southern California so, of course, we would look forward to another opportunity to compete against them.

“If it happens, that match feels like a coin flip to me. It could go either way. I have a ton of respect for Coach Chu and his team has no weaknesses. If we have the privilege of playing them Thursday, we know the tennis will be outstanding and I just hope things fall our way.”