Four years ago, the Canyon Crest Academy (CCA) girls tennis team won its first-ever CIF Open Division Championship, ending a 28-year Torrey Pines reign at the top of the local high school tennis scene. Saturday afternoon, Oct. 29, the Ravens turned in a textbook performance, knocking off first time Open championship finalist Del Norte, 12-6, at Barnes Tennis Center, capturing their consecutive fourth section title. Maybe it’s time to officially declare a new dynasty.
Although it came into the championship final with a 23-1 record, this was not just a “re-load and dominate” CCA squad. Six of the top 10 players from the 2021 banner-winning roster were gone, a handful of those to Division I colleges. There was also a new coach, with San Diego prep coaching veteran Kevin Brown taking over for Chris Black, who had been with the program since the school opened in 2004.
At No. 1 singles, sophomore Yule Kang was a standout for the Ravens.
The path was clearly different from years past, but the results were ultimately the same. For the soft-spoken, quietly confident Brown, it was unquestionably an occasion to remember. After more than three decades coaching at Orange Glen side that was more recreational than competitive, he was testing his coaching proficiency at the highest level.
“This is No. 1 for sure,” said Brown, when asked where the victory would rank on his personal list of accomplishments. “After 36 years worth of coaching, this was the cherry on top of the sundae.
“Anytime you win anything it feels pretty good but when it’s the last two teams in a tournament like this, it’s something special.”
Brown didn’t hesitate in terms of giving credit for the outcome. “This was all about our players. From the first match at San Marcos in August to today, they were almost professional in a way,” he said. “They had the talent and never got freaked out or torqued at any point during the year.
“On a big stage, we had all of the intangibles today—presence, poise and competitiveness. From my experience, the team behaved totally normally.”
In his first year at CCA, Head Coach Kevin Brown kept the winning tradition rolling.
The Ravens grabbed a 4-2 lead after the first rotation and methodically proceeded to do exactly the same the following two. In traditional CCA fashion, they dominated doubles snagging seven of a possible nine points. Senior co-captains Lillia Finnegan and Elina Shalaev both went undefeated, pairing with freshman Ahana Singh and senior Anya Pierce/freshman sister Nicole Shalaev respectively. Sophomore Yule Kang and freshman Kaelyn Liu each accounted for two singles points.
Finnegan and Shalaev, who have posted a combined doubles record of 76-7 this season, are two of four seniors who have been part of four CCA CIF-winning units. Brown believes both will be fronting teams considered contenders at the upcoming CIF individual doubles tournament. Kang, who reached the CIF doubles finals with Finnegan last fall, is now a challenger for the section singles crown.
Championship Saturday did not get off to a completely smooth start for Brown & Co. Due to a scheduling mix-up, the team bus arrived an hour late. Yet, according to Brown, that was when he got the first inkling that things were going to go the Ravens’ way.
“Bus rides are always the best parts of the season, the times the players will remember the most and where you learn the most about your players,” says Brown. “We’re on the bus an hour late and instead of getting nervous, they were singing on the way down. Lillia brought a speaker, got some music going and they were very loose.” It’s an example of the type of leadership and environment the co-captain and her fellow seniors have tried to develop.
Freshman Ahana Singh paired with Finnegan to go 3-0 in doubles play.
“Going into the season, we already had a good team vibe but really wanted to increase it,” said Finnegan. “I hope we did that. Today was all about the team, those who were playing but also those were there to support.” Finnegan felt that the bus being late may have even had a positive effect.
“We got to the site late, didn’t really get a chance to do a regular warm-up but it kind of worked in our favor,” she said. “There wasn’t time to think about it, we just went out and did our thing.”
Still, the first match provided the only real snag for Finnegan and Singh. Plagued by some early unforced errors, they struggled briefly and went down a service break. Finnegan concedes there might have been nervous feelings.
“There were probably a few butterflies involved,” she admitted. “I wanted to do well for my teammates. As one of the captains, I didn’t want to let my teammates down. As soon as we moved ahead, 5-4, it seemed like we put the nerves aside and played the way we wanted the rest of the way.”
Kang, who actually played at a junior tennis doubles sectional in Fountain Valley that morning, appreciates the opportunity to play in the team format that high school tennis affords. “I was so excited when we won, partly because I’m not really that used to playing on a team,” she said. “It’s always fun and enjoyable.
“I feel a little more responsibility, especially this year as the No. 2 single players. I care more about the team more instead of only me.” Kang dropped a tough first match, but thanks to an assist from Brown rolled from there.
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“In the beginning of every match I try to focus on my play but as it goes on, I adjust a little depending on what’s working,” said Kang, a patient player with solid ground strokes who Brown says “plays tennis” as opposed to just pounding the ball. “In my second match, it was close early but I got some advice from Coach Brown. He said I wasn’t using the full court as much as I should have. I started doing that and it worked really well.”
Although Canyon Crest clinched its triumph early in the third rotation when Finnegan and Singh picked up win No. 3, Brown says he didn’t have an immediate personal reaction and it wasn’t until the post-match awards presentation that the impact of the day and season really struck.
“When we scored our 10th point, I was waiting to feel something but I really didn’t,” recalled Brown, who has worked the CIF championship for years in an administrative capacity. “I think I was waiting for everyone else to finish.
“My brother is a football coach and I always remember him saying that even if you have a 50-point lead, you don’t celebrate until it’s all over—I guess some of that rubbed off.
“This event being at the Barnes Center, it all really kind of hit me during the awards ceremony. When he was handing out the championship plaque, Ron Marquez from the CIF staff, said ‘usually Kevin’s the one giving the trophy to the winning school, now I’m giving it to him.’ That was the moment.”
The Ravens reached the finals by knocking off Patrick Henry in the first round and Cathedral Catholic in the semi-finals. He acknowledged that Del Norte didn’t make it an easy road on Saturday.
“That was a good team out there against us—Del Norte’s kids came out ready and played hard,” said Brown. “There were a couple of flashes where I was thinking ‘it would be a crying shame to get to the end and lose,’ but I felt we were the better team and we played like it.”
Now Brown’s outfit will play in this week’s CIF Individual Championships at Balboa Tennis Club and then advance (with Del Norte) to the CIF State Tournament.
It was left to Finnegan to sum things up. “They’ve all been great but this one was different,” she said. “We had a new coach and especially because it was my senior year and I was one of our captains, it was another level of extraordinary.
“Today was the highlight of my career and my CCA career meant so much to me I just can’t put it into words. I feel really fortunate for all of the teammates I’ve had and this year all coming together was more than I could ever ask for.”