Canyon Crest, Torrey Pines headline favorites in ‘first-of-its-kind’ CIF Tennis Championships

Canyon Crest seniors Praneet Varade (left) and Pramukh Shankar
Canyon Crest seniors Praneet Varade (left) and Pramukh Shankar
(Ken Grosse)

In a tennis season that, for the longest time, looked like it might not ever see a first serve, two of the sports local powers are now positioned to potentially be there at the finish, accomplishing something distinctive in the annals of San Diego high school sports.

When the 2021 CIF Tennis Championships commence May 11 (the championship final is set for Barnes Tennis Center on May 13), it will mark the first time that boys and girls have competed on the same teams and directly against one another in a CIF event. Seated prominently among the eight teams expected to be selected for the Open Division bracket are Canyon Crest Academy and Torrey Pines.

Defending CIF individual champion Katie Codd will be a key performer for CCA in the post-season.
Defending CIF individual champion Katie Codd will be a key performer for CCA in the post-season.
(Ken Grosse)

The two programs prevailed in the last Open tournaments the section hosted. Canyon Crest captured the last girls’ championship in the fall of 2019 while the Torrey Pines boys had previously secured their fifth consecutive boys’ title in the spring of 2019. Those triumphs were followed by the onslaught of the Covid-19 virus which canceled both events in 2020.

The girls’ season is typically in the fall and the boys in spring. When local health updates indicated that high school sports, shut down for virtually all of 2020, might be able to resume in early 2021, the mixed gender proposal came to the tennis forefront as a way the sport could salvage both of its seasons.

Torrey Pines senior co-captain Alex Stafford
Torrey Pines senior co-captain Alex Stafford
(Ken Grosse)

Using the World Team Tennis scoring format, San Diego prep squads have been in action since Feb. 27. Each dual contest consists of three one-set boys and girls singles matches (six points total), three one-set boys and three one-set girls doubles matches (six points total) and finally five one-set mixed doubles matches (five points total).

Coaches Chris Black of Canyon Crest and Don Chu of Torrey Pines have both emerged as advocates of the creative solution the CIF has adopted to address the extraordinary circumstances.

“It’s been an unprecedented year,” said Black, whose astounding 52 varsity players (28 boys/24 girls) have posted an 18-2 record. “A year ago, some of these kids had their season taken away. Taking advantage of the new format, the way we’ve built our roster, set our lineups and created the schedule (which included five two-match days) is focused on getting as many kids as possible a chance to play as possible and get eligible for post-season competition (must play in a minimum of 12 matches, five in league).”

Falcon freshman Rebecca Kong
Falcon freshman Rebecca Kong
(Ken Grosse)

Chu, whose 15-3 squad boasts 34 players, says, “This year has been one of the biggest challenges, just to get out there and play. I want to make sure our kids have a good experience. All of them deserve a shot and being able to allow everyone to reap the benefits that are distinctive to team sports makes it pretty special.”

The new playing system has resulted in a variety of expected and unexpected outcomes.

“Our kids and those on most of the teams we’ve played, have really embraced the format as well as the idea of sportsmanship as it relates to the mixed teams,” says Black. “There are different dynamics from past years and different dynamics at each school. At some schools the boys are stronger and at some girls carry the teams but both have come to recognize how important the other is to overall success.

“Our kids want to win every match but that hasn’t really been on our radar as coaches. Along the way, they’ve come to understand that getting more kids on the court is a win for everybody.”

Chu believes the lessons extend beyond the tennis court. “It feels like the girls and boys have learned to respect each other, see each other as people and learned to work better together,” observed Chu. “It’s been somewhat of a surprise both for myself and the players.

“Our No. 1 singles player is no more important than our No. 3 and our No. 1 mixed doubles team is no more important than our No. 5. Winning is a team thing and the examples this provides are the kind of things that you can best be demonstrated in a team setting.”

The players have their own reasons for enjoying the new concept. Seventeen-year-old CCA junior Katie Codd, who won the CIF individual singles crown as a freshman, has attracted attention from across the country and figures to have her pick of Ivy League schools as well as several of the nation’s top 20 tennis programs. Yet, unlike many elite preps, she has chosen to stick with competing for her high school team.

“The new format, I like it a lot,” said Codd, who hopes to take a shot at professional tennis after at Division I college career. “It’s really fun to have boys on the team. They hit with a little more pace and I feel like I play better in mixed doubles because it makes me more aggressive. I poach more at the net because that’s what you have to do to get points.

“Obviously, the team dynamic is a little different with the guys but we meshed in a pretty natural way. It only took a match or so.”

Torrey Pines senior co-captain Alex Stafford, a four-year member of the Falcon varsity with a pair of San Diego CIF team banners and a CIF State Regional Championship on his resume already, saw it as just a matter of time before the team became a single unit.

“I think at the start both teams didn’t really know each other that much and as a result kept to their respective groups,” said Stafford. “But after having some team dinners following matches and a few other activities, we got to know each other a lot better.

“Honestly, I’m kind of surprised at how close we’ve become and it’s really been good for our team. I think we’ve done a pretty good job, particularly in mixed doubles—the girls have definitely held their own.”

Call the “experiment” a success story for CIF. Whether it comes back next year is still to be resolved but for the present a “new style” champion is set to be revealed this week. In another twist instituted for 2021, the eight teams in the Open Division will be determined by the Universal Tennis Ranking (UTR) of each team. It is a structure being piloted by the San Diego section. Based on results of all matches, the average ranking of the top six players will decide the ranking of each team—taking many of the idiosyncrasies and personalities out of the selection process.

Canyon Crest has all but assured itself of the No. 1 seeding and the next two slots figure to be occupied by Bishop’s (La Jolla) and Torrey Pines. Since there appears to be a significant gap between that trio and the rest of the county, a potential finals match-up between the schools that sit just 2.7 miles apart is looming. Chu, whose team split a pair of matches with CCA in the regular season (the April 29 win coming with several top CCA players on the sidelines), would welcome the rematch with Black, a friend who he clearly respects.

“CCA is the cream of the crop but they still know we’re around,” said Chu, alluding to a pre-season comment. “You can only excel when you’re playing someone at your own level. We both have high quality kids and that tends to make the sports experience high quality.

“On paper, they are one of the strongest teams in the country so we would have to play our best to defeat them. If we can compete with them and it’s close, it will be exciting as can be.”

Codd, fellow juniors Asha Gidwani and Lyna Fowler, sophomore Elina Shalaev and senior captain Taylor Shimizu are stalwarts for Black’s female contingent. Junior Zach Pellouchoud is at the top of the boys’ singles ladder. Seniors Praneet Varade (team captain) and Pramukh Shankar and sophomore Jackson Codd (Katie’s brother) are other key contributors. Senior Russell Soohoo, out since early in the season with a knee injury, could be back for post-season, further bolstering Raven hopes.

For Torrey Pines, clearly less experienced on the girls’ side, getting out of the gate strongly in boys’ singles seems imperative if reaching the championship match and winning is to be an option. Stafford, who dropped a match earlier in the season to Pelluchoud in a tiebreaker, and fellow senior co-captain Maxim Pogorelov will be crucial in that area. Somewhat surprisingly, the Falcons won four-of-five mixed doubles encounters in their recent victory over Canyon Crest and in the No. 1 girls’ doubles clash, the freshmen duo of Natalia Mochernak and Rebecca Kong. pushed uber-talented partners Codd and Fowler in a close-than-the-score-looked, 6-3, defeat.

Codd and Stafford both like what their sides will bring to a possible title skirmish. “For sure there’s a rivalry with Torrey Pines and we always look at them as a good challenge,” says Codd. “Of course, we want to beat them—they’re the school down the road.

“We were 1-1 in the regular season against them but that loss kind of comes with an asterisk since we didn’t have our top lineup—if we have all of our players, we’ll definitely be a tough team to beat.”

While acknowledging the realities of their last meeting, Stafford feels his squad is equal to the test. “We know they were shorthanded when we beat them two weeks ago but we also know them very well and have a tradition of rising to the challenge in these kinds of situations,” said Stafford. “That winning tradition is something we’ve talked about a lot and it’s important for us to continue the streak.

“I’m really confident but I’m sure they are too.”

Black summed up the unique circumstances and opportunities that part of the CIF journey for both teams. “It’s been a tough year,” understated Black. “With Covid, kids have been isolated from their friends, families have been affected and both Don and I wanted to make the tennis court a sanctuary while also keeping an eye on our goals.

“The kids’ well-being is No. 1, but CIF is a goal for sure. We’re trying to do something that has never been done and may never be done again.”