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New coach delivering same results for CCA girls tennis

Sixty-year-old Kevin Brown spent 35 years as head tennis coach at Orange Glen High School in Escondido, the first 10 guiding a squad that was regularly among the top eight in the county, the last 25 overseeing an evolved program that was more “recreational in nature.”

New CCA tennis coach Kevin Brown and his girls' team are off to a strong start.
New CCA tennis coach Kevin Brown and his girls’ team are off to a strong start.
(Ken Grosse)

This fall, the well-respected Brown, who has also served as a longtime director of the annual San Diego CIF Tennis Championships, made a largely unexpected career detour. Taking over for ultra-successful Chris Black as the head boys and girls tennis coach at Canyon Crest Academy (CCA), he is now piloting a program that has been the best in the section over the past several years.

While the switch may seem enormous to the average observer, Brown looks at it in much more simplistic terms.

“I get that thinking since I’m coming from a situation where we were literally trying to teach our players how to keep score and other tennis basics to arguably the best position in the state,” said Brown, who graduated from Orange Glen and was the Patriots’ No. 1 singles player for three seasons. “The tennis part of the equation kind of takes care of itself—I mean all of the top players today have their personal coaches and compete against the best of their age group in the junior ranks.

“As a high school coach at CCA, I’ll be focusing not only on the tennis but also keeping everybody motivated, happy, providing a great experience and cleaning up small issues that arise while working with them on mental stuff and life lessons—things I’ve been doing the last 30 years or so at Orange Glen.

“I think all kids are open to different methods and learning new things. It’s just a matter of how you approach them and get them to buy in.”

It’s been ‘so far, so good’ for Brown at CCA. Early in their fall season, the Raven girls, three-time defending CIF Open Division champs as well as part of CCA’s title winning entry in the 2020 CoVid-inspired boys-girls combo championship, have gotten off to a promising start. While utilizing the entirety of its 24-person roster, CCA has raced out to a 7-0 record in dual matches, a string that includes triumphs over three foes that reached the eight-team 2021 CIF Open bracket.

Raven senior Lillia Finnegan in action at last year's CIF Championship.
Raven senior Lillia Finnegan in action at last year’s CIF Championship.
(Ken Grosse)

Even though Canyon Crest graduated a significant chunk of last year’s championship lineup, a talented core, including senior co-captains Elina Shalaev and Lillia Finnegan, is back to lead the title defense. Shalaev reached the quarterfinals of the 2021 CIF Individual Singles Championship while Finnegan and now-sophomore Chaeyule Kang paired up to reach the finals of the section doubles tourney. Sophomore Nyesha Sinha and freshman Kaelyn Liu also appear poised to be solid contributors.

With barely over a month’s exposure to his new environment, Brown has been struck by the way the players go about their business.

“I was immediately impressed with how competitive they are,” said the Escondido native. “When I just let them play, they were laughing, having fun but they were playing hard.

“There’s also a great team attitude. Everyone seems to have a willingness to step up and do whatever’s needed to make the team successful—play singles, doubles, whatever you ask of them.”

Although many of the players had strong ties to Black, who had been at CCA since it opened, the vibe has been positive from their vantage point as well.

“It was hard on some of our players,” said Finnegan of Black’s departure. “Personally, he was my coach for three years and played a major role in helping me find myself on and off the court.

“As a group though, I think the team has responded well to Coach Brown. We’re still trying to figure each other out but we believe in him and from what we’ve seen so far, he’s been amazing.”

Brown, who looks like he would be as comfortable paddling out on a surfboard as he is on a tennis court, may be even more laid back than the man he replaced.

When asked about his coaching style, Brown said, “I’m very conversational and tend to suggest more than tell. I’ve found most kids like to be involved, or at least feel like they are, in the decision-making process.

“I also ask a lot of questions, especially in regard to why they do certain things in certain situations. You often find out what they think they’re doing is not always what’s happening.

“These kids are driven and sometimes so single-minded they don’t look around too much. I try to emphasize that they should pick their heads up, see what’s out there and get themselves as much perspective as they can—make them realize that losing a set is not the end of the world. I want our players to know that at the end of the day, it’s where you finish, not where you start.”

Listening to Finnegan talk, it’s clear that Brown’s message it already getting through. “If I had to use a word to describe Coach Brown, it would be ‘steadfast,’ “ said the 17-year-old Del Mar resident. “He’s an emotional anchor for us, very calming.

“If the seas are rough, he’s calm. If the seas are calm, he’s calm.”

The appeal of CCA for Brown included the size and quality of the school, as well as the opportunity to work with a top-level holdover staff. Assistant coaches Jesse Steinberg and Dave Liu were prep doubles partners at Torrey Pines and bring a wealth of knowledge in regard to the North County Coastal League and the local community while Jeff Montgomery provides a similar veteran presence coaching the junior varsity. But the basics are what sealed the deal.

“The quality of the players was really attractive,” says Brown. “At CCA I’m getting a chance to work with kids who have been playing since they were five or six and playing practically every day. I thought, ‘wow, it would be cool coaching a team like this.’

“Then there’s the ability to play in the North County Coastal League—that’s high level. I’m looking forward to those match days. It’s just going to be fun.”

The transitionary process started during last year’s CIF Boys Championship when Black let Brown know he was stepping down and asked about his level of interest in applying for the job. Further discussions ensued and it was a relatively easy decision for Brown when an official offer was made made. But, even someone who’s been married for 37 years and has a lifetime’s worth of experience in the local tennis world can find himself feeling like a ”newbie” when tossed into uncharted waters and Brown admits to having had an anxious moment or two.

“I was working on a retirement plan more than thinking about making a move and I’m not sure I would have made a move for any place except Canyon Crest,” said Brown. “I’ve known Chris for 18 years and really respect him and what he’s built at CCA. Coaches don’t leave programs like this so it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“Still, I was in the car driving home when I first found out about it and actually pulled over on the 163 while I was talking to Chris. Obviously, the stakes are pretty high, you’ve got some of the best players in the county and making a change like this always comes with a few unknowns. I told Chris, ‘Shoot, I wouldn’t want to screw this up.’ ”

A few words from his predecessor put those thoughts to rest. “I kind of laughed and said ‘No, you have the perfect skill set,’ “ said Black. “He’s a lifelong educator who connects extremely well with student-athletes and at an academic juggernaut like Canyon Crest, you need someone who understands the dynamic. In that regard, Kevin is brilliant.” In the big picture, Black sees Brown as the textbook choice to keep the CCA machine humming along at its current pace.

“I love those kids at CCA and it was important to me to leave that program in really capable hands, not just from a tennis aspect,” continued Black. “Kevin was a much more accomplished tennis player than I was but, more importantly, he shares the same philosophy about winning with integrity and class. He checked all the boxes for me and our administration.”

With the Ravens’ coaching shift now seamlessly in progress, attention will turn to results and the girls’ ’22 CIF Open title chase already appears to be shaping up as a two-way battle between Canyon Crest and neighborhood rival Torrey Pines. The latter had won all four Open crowns contested before CCA started its current run. The two local powers will lock horns for the first time Tuesday (Sept. 20). Brown is excited about his club’s prospects as the season develops.

“I don’t see any reason why we can’t win CIF,” said Brown without a hint of overconfience. “We’ll definitely be in the picture, but our first goal is to win league. After that, we can concentrate on our second goal, winning CIF. The third would be state level—if we get there, anything can happen. All bets would be off.”

Even with a “rookie” coach at the helm.


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