Last fall, the Canyon Crest girls tennis team was responsible for one of the biggest sports stories in the young campus’s 15 years of existence. Coach Chris Black’s netters not only won the school’s first-ever CIF Open Division championship, bringing an end to the 28-year reign of league and neighborhood rival Torrey Pines, but with just one senior in a youth-laden lineup, the Ravens seemed destined to start a dynasty of their own.
The path from that point forward has not been quite as straightforward as one might expect. Prior to the start of the current season, Black got some news that’s become all too common across multiple sports in the high school world. His three returning singles players from the title squad—senior Giulia Hayer, junior Irene Huang and defending CIF individual champion sophomore Katie Codd—would be foregoing the 2019 prep season to concentrate on junior tennis tournaments.
That’s a story for another time, but it put the Ravens’ hopes of repeating their 2018 section banner romp in a seemingly precarious position. Funny how things work out. After breezing past La Jolla Country Day (12-6) Wednesday and Avocado West League foe Mission Hills (16-2) a day later, Black’s crew is a nifty 4-0 on the season with two wins over teams (LJCD & Del Norte) that reached last year’s eight-team CIF Open Division bracket. The question now is once again, ‘who’s going to beat Canyon Crest?’
“We lost three of the county’s best players, but we still had some excellent returners and we had a great influx of young talent,” said Black. “I lot of people saw who we lost and felt we would be vulnerable. I think we’ve already shown that we’re among a handful of teams capable of challenging for the section championship.”
Notable among the veterans is the sister duo of senior Emily and sophomore Lyna Fowler and sophomore Asha Gidwani. All three played doubles in last year’s CIF action and Emily teamed with Hayer to win the CIF doubles tourney. The two sisters are targeted to eventually pair up in doubles at season’s end and Gidwani figures to ultimately find a place in singles group. Freshmen Elina Shalaev and Lillia Finnegan have demonstrated that it’s going to be hard to keep them out of the top nine.
The departed trio are still classmates at Canyon Crest and Emily Fowler says it’s been a seamless transition. “Honestly, no one’s really mentioned it,” said Fowler, who transferred from Torrey Pines to CCA last year and would have a four-year CIF team championship sweep if the Ravens can capture another crown. “The girls wished us the best of luck and we didn’t have any hard feelings—we’re all still friends”
Fowler, who plays on the junior tournament circuit and plans to play collegiate tennis herself, understands the thought process of her former teammates. “I get why they did it—it’s hard to balance competitive tennis with school and then add high school tennis in,” she said. “My sister, Asha and I all do it, so it’s not impossible, but there are a ton of factors that go into it and each case is probably different. For instance, Giulia committed to Santa Clara and is actually starting college in January.”
Like Black, Fowler’s not too worried about the new edition of Canyon Crest girls tennis. “I think our team is in a good place,” she said. “We’re still solid. We have five tournament players (gained two, lost three) so even with the losses from last year, we still have a really good team.
“It’s only the second week of the season but I’m pretty confident because we have talent and a pretty good internal support system.” Even against La Jolla Country Day, a Top 10 opponent, the Ravens surrendered just one point in matches where that day’s starting lineup was on the court.
Black credits his program’s depth, consistency and culture for making it possible for CCA to weather it’s unexpected loss. “It helps that we have really robust numbers—we had 60 girls try out this year,” said Black, who has been part of the coaching staff since girls’ tennis started at the school in 2004. “We’ve always been in the shadow of teams like Torrey Pines, Rancho Bernardo and La Costa Canyon which could put together such great singles lineups. We tried to battle that by being strong in doubles and now, when we have an outstanding set of singles players ourselves, we can still go four deep with quality doubles teams—not many other places can say that.
“The consistency comes largely from the fact that we’ve literally had just three coaches in 15 years. Some schools have trouble keeping coaches more than one or two years. That consistency has put us on an upward trajectory and allowed for an environment that lets the culture grow.”
The philosophy in place at CCA is simple and its success at the highest level has caught even Black a bit by surprise.
“Happy players are winning players,” he theorized. “We work hard to create that kind of atmosphere. We also emphasize things like sportsmanship and winning with class. Those things, along with the great academics at CCA, resonate with both kids and parents.
“I’ve always believed in those things but never realized how it could also make for more competitive success. That’s gratifying.”
With a month and a half left until the CIF Playoffs start, Black and his charges are in experimental mode, getting a look at how different lineups work and where the chemistry is best.
“This first part of the season we’re going to mix it up, see what the girls like best and see who gels best in doubles,” he said. “In the latter few weeks of the regular season we want to have a lineup in place that’s been cultivated.
“Make no mistake, our girls want to win. They want an undefeated season but we’re still figuring our team out. Eventually, we want to filed the best starting nine we can.”