No. 2-seeded Canyon Crest aiming for first-ever Boys CIF Open Division tennis crown this week

CCA senior Zach Pellouchoud shown at last year's CIF co-ed championship.
CCA senior Zach Pellouchoud shown at last year’s CIF co-ed championship.
(Ken Grosse)

Since the advent of the Open Division in CIF Boys Tennis (2015), there is little question that Canyon Crest Academy (CCA) has been among the section’s elite. Yet the Ravens have never captured a boys’ Open championship, placing second three times in the division’s first five years and then being denied by extraordinary circumstances in 2020 and ’21.

Coach Chris Black’s outfit will have a golden opportunity to change that narrative this year. As the No. 2 seed in the eight-team Open Division, CCA will begin its quest against 7th-seeded Eastlake at home Tuesday, April 26. A victory there would have them hosting the winner of No. 3 Del Norte-No. 6 St. Augustine Wednesday, April 27 with the team prevailing in that one moving on to the Saturday, April 30 CIF Championship final at San Diego’s Barnes Tennis Center (4 p.m.).

The expectation is that the top-seeded Bishop’s School will be waiting there. Ranked well above the other six qualifiers in the Universal Tennis Rating (UTR), a clash between the top two seeds would provide a classic finals match-up.

“I don’t care who we play as long as we reach the championship match and we’re definitely not going to be overlooking any of the matches we need to win to get there,” says Black. “That said, Bishop’s has an amazing roster and I feel like that would be an incredibly close battle.”

Canyon Crest Head Coach Chris Black
Canyon Crest Head Coach Chris Black
(Ken Grosse)

Canyon Crest has the highest team UTR in the section but Bishop’s likely earned the No. 1 seed on the basis of a 13-5 March 16 triumph over the Ravens. Most tennis aficionados would consider the comparable UTR numbers a more accurate measurement of what a potential rematch might look like since the Ravens’ talented captain Zach Pellouchoud and a handful of his ablest teammates were not on the court for the loss to Bishop’s.

Looking for prospects outside the favored duo? If you’re a fan of past performances, fourth-seeded Torrey Pines would offer plenty of intrigue. The Falcons have won all of the five boys’ Open Division crowns to date and that type of legacy can never be overlooked, particularly as that history relates to Canyon Crest.

The fact that the two schools are located two and a half miles apart and many of the players are friends and neighbors outside of school is a good starting point. Coupled with the reality that the schools compete zealously regardless the sport and three of those CIF Open banners won by Torrey Pines have come at the expense of CCA in the title match, you’d have an attention-grabbing script if the two teams met. Surprisingly, it’s an outcome the CCA side isn’t really concerning itself with.

In the past, that might not have been the case. While CCA has been ascending for most of the last decade, the Falcons have been the hurdle that has kept their local rivals from the summit. Black had a lineup that appeared primed to challenge Torrey for the top rung in 2020, only to see the season snatched away by Covid-19. Then, in 2021, another strong CCA boy’s contingent was sidetracked when CIF decided to go with a one-off co-ed format to maximize student-athlete opportunities in the wake of the pandemic. Despite the past heartbreaks at the hands of the Falcons, Black feels the significance of the rivalry has shifted a bit.

“Three years have passed since we last had a CIF Boys championship and so much has happened in the interim—quite honestly, we’re just glad to be playing,” he said. “In terms of Torrey Pines, that ship has kind of sailed.

“We have our own identity and earned our place among the section’s top programs, along with with Torrey Pines among others.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking Black and his crew will be content with just being part of the Open bracket, though.

“CIF is very significant because there are plenty of boys on our team who have never tasted victory like that before,” said Black. “I’ve been here 17 years, have won the Open three times with the girls’ team and will probably have chances in the future as a coach, but for some of these boys, it will be their only shot.

“Last year was a unique, cool opportunity playing with the girls but our boys have never got to hoist the trophy on their own. It would be special for them, especially the seniors.”

Speaking of seniors, the undisputed leader of the pack for CCA is fourth-year standout Pellouchoud. Recently tabbed as the No. 1 seed for the upcoming CIF individual singles championship tournament, the six-foot, righthander has been a staple in the Raven lineup since arriving on campus but from Black’s perspective, the 2022 version of Pellouchoud is far superior to the freshman model.

A huge forehand and the ability to set up points have been fundamental pieces of his game but more recently, in addition to weaponizing his serve, Pellouchoud has elevated his mental game to new heights, or as Black says, “Zach never gets too high or low—he has professional talent and now has a mindset to match.

“He is really a student of the game,” added Black. “He loves talking about strategy and cares deeply about the nuances of tennis.

“He wants to know what makes him better or makes him more likely to succeed and truly likes to use every setback as a learning opportunity.”

Of course, the Ravens have a lot more in their arsenal than Pellouchoud. A deep, capable junior class gives Black plenty of options when it comes to tailoring a lineup. Among the prominent are Jackson Codd, whose sister, Katie, was part of back-to-back CCA CIF title winners, and his doubles partner Kyle Villeponteau. Both will be playing singles come CIF individual time.

Those three, along with Kevin Wang, Tyler Kim and Zach Amendolagine are also holdovers from last year’s victorious co-ed unit. Six-foot-three jack-of-all-trades Rahul Machavarapu came over from La Costa Canyon and Franklin Liu is an impact transfer from Torrey Pines. The latter, pairing with Wang, will be a threat in the CIF individual doubles tourney.

“The improvement of that junior class over the last year can’t be over-stated,” said Black. “A lot of it has to do with how competitive our region and our league are—these guys play each other outside of school all the time and that has helped.

“We’ve also been fortunate to have had some very good mentors and leaders on our team over the last several years, including Zach Pellouchoud. Our younger players have seen him model an ‘always wanting to be better’ attitude and it has rubbed off.”

Black’s squad played in the prestigious Ojai Tennis Tournament last weekend in what was seemingly a perfect prelude to CIF. CCA was one of just three high school teams that had players reach the quarterfinals in both singles and doubles, courtesy of Pellouchoud and Codd-Villeponteau. Their coach was appropriately pleased.

“Ojai was wonderful, we made it further as an overall program than we ever had, even though we faced some tough seeding in the quarterfinals of both singles and doubles,” said Black. “We were on the precipice of defeating the No. 2 seed in singles and No. 1 seed in doubles but didn’t finish the job.

“So, we left a little bit out there but it’s got to give the boys tremendous confidence going forward while still keeping us hungry. We’re peaking at just the right time.” Black has a simple formula for CCA accomplishing the task at hand this week.

“I feel like we can win if the boys simply trust their ability and don’t let the moment get too big for them,” he said. “They just need to keep doing the work, the same as we’ve done all season.

“Concurrently, we have to understand that this is not a situation where it’s ours to lose—we’re going to have to go out there and win it.”