It’s a new world for local prep tennis teams as 2021 season sets for late debut
For at least this season in the North County Conference’s slightly re-fashioned tennis alignment, the Coastal League will include Torrey Pines, La Costa Canyon, Canyon Crest Academy, Carlsbad and San Dieguito Academy. The revamped lineup brings together a top-heavy set of section title contenders, including defending 2019 CIF Open Division champions Canyon Crest (girls) and Torrey Pines (boys).
Fittingly, in a 2020-21 school year that has been tumultuous at best, the upcoming 2021 tennis campaign will provide a scenario that nobody could have imagined when virtual classes began in September. In addition to the fact that the majority of students have still not set foot on campus for classes, both boys’ and girls’ tennis teams will play at the same time (the girls typically play during the fall season and boys in spring)—and for the first time ever, they will be playing as one unit, using the World Team Tennis (WTT) scoring system.
Teams were able to start practicing Feb. 15 and regular season matches can commence Feb. 27. In this “new season” prep teams will have to adjust to government directives, a rapidly thrown together amalgam of schedules and the continued specter of CoVid-19 virus disruptions, while still navigating customary hurdles like opt outs, injuries and spring break in order to get through to league tournaments, followed by CIF team (May 18-21) and individual (May 24-28) championships. The plan is to have the section events return to the Barnes Tennis Center after a four-year hiatus.
The new addition to the Coastal cast, is a rising San Dieguito program that has seen both its boys’ and girls’ teams achieve recent post-season success at a high level (the SDA boys won the CIF D-II title in 2016 while the girls were CIF Open runner-ups in 2018 and reached the semi-finals of the Open a year later). By joining the Coastal League Head Coach Joe Tomasi & Co. will be looking to take another step forward, after dominating the weaker Avocado East League the past two seasons.
Although facing its new challenge while coming off a year that has been defined by uncertainty, the Mustangs are fortunate to have a wealth of stability guiding their tennis fortunes. Starting his 25th season at the helm, 57-year-old Tacoma, Wash., native Tomasi provides the perfect mix of experience, patience and mindset to pilot his team through kind of obstacles that will inevitably present themselves (see Q&A below).
Prior to the start of team workouts, when talking at length about the coming season, his team and goals, Tomasi, reflecting the uniqueness of the moment, never mentioned winning, titles or other typical on-court objectives, preferring to focus on returning a sense of normalcy and positivity to his players.
“The past year has been tough for everybody,” he said. “I’m more concerned about the kids than anything. Last year, the seniors had no graduation and all of our students have missed a lot. This year it seems the kids are convinced they won’t be going back to school.
“Every time it seems like something’s going to happen or progress has been made, it gets squashed. Some of our kids haven’t seen each other for over a year. Hopefully, they get the chance to have a full season.”
That brand of story is not exclusive to SDA. It’s being shared across the county. Over at Canyon Crest, which boasts a program that’s as talented—and deep (over 100 kids participated in a recent Zoom orientation meeting)—as any in San Diego, veteran Head Coach Chris Black feels Tomasi’s pain.
“These kids need a victory,” said Black. “CoVid has basically hijacked their academic lives. We plan to play the maximum of 24 matches so that we can get more kids competing.”
The New Format
Everyone in local tennis circles seems to be talking about the format teams will be using when play resumes. Although it’s currently slated to be utilized for just the current season, it’s undeniably created interest. Boys and girls will not only be playing on the same team, they’ll have an opportunity to go face-to-face on the court.
Each match will feature three one-set singles competitions for each gender, followed by three one-set doubles contests for a total of 12 points (one point per). The match will conclude with five mixed doubles clashes which are also worth a point apiece. Individual players will be allowed to play two sets, one in two divisions of choice. With 17 points available, there will be no ties, eliminating sometimes awkward tiebreaker scenarios.
The new format came out of the CIF’s Tennis Advisory Committee, made up of representatives from each league (Black is the Coastal League rep).
“Back in the fall, we knew where we were, but we didn’t know where we were going to be,” said CIF Operations & Events Coordinator Ron Marquez, the former seven-time CIF Champion coach at Cathedral Catholic/USDHS. “With the overall number of playing seasons being condensed and so many coaches who oversee both boys’ and girls’ teams, we felt having two separate seasons would be too chaotic, especially for the coaches.”
About 20 San Diego teams have been part of a winter club season that has run between the traditional boys’ and girls’ playing dates and featured combined gender teams. “The idea was put on the table for the prospective regular season and the thought was ‘why not?’ “ said Marquez. “If there ever was one, this is the year to pivot and our ultimate goal was to get as many kids back on the court as we could.”
A Zoom call with section coaches that included a drop-in by tennis legend and WTT co-founder Billie Jean King outlined the benefits of the system and cemented the concept.
“This is the first time ever that mixed doubles will be included in our championship,” added Marquez, “and it seems to be the best way to give the most athletes a chance to play.”
Tomasi seemed representative of his coaching peers when he said, “I’m excited about the new set-up. It’s obviously a little different but I think it’s going to be a lot more strategic and provide a lot of different opportunities for our kids. It will be important to find some chemistry, especially in mixed doubles. I can see myself writing out four-or-five different lineup options for each match.”
As expected, the Covid effect will be felt. The CIF has published section-wide guidelines and specific protocols for each playing site will have their own set of requirements as set by the various districts. The latter will demand a high level of communication between schools as they travel from venue to venue. Items such as masks and individual water bottles, which have become commonplace over the past year, will be prerequisites.
“Studies from states that have already had competitions found no evidence of transmission through tennis balls,” said Marquez. “But we will not have pre or post-match handshakes or introductions. The ‘mask’ rules will apply at all times to the coaches and individuals on the sidelines but on-court competitors will be required to wear masks ‘as tolerated,’ meaning they may be removed if making breathing difficult.”
COASTAL LEAGUE OVERVIEW
With all the twists and turns that have occurred over the past 12 months and will undoubtedly spill over into the 2021 Coastal League season it would seem improbable to try to accurately predict an outcome after the five teams square off in an eight match home-and-home series over the next couple of months.
Well, maybe not. All signs point toward Canyon Crest being the team to beat in the league and possibly the section. But there will certainly be a number of unknowns given the new format, the long stretch of down time and expected question marks surrounding rosters.
That said, Black’s squad is loaded up top and as deep as they come in the high school game. In the recent Universal Tennis Ranking (UTR) national Top 10, Canyon Crest was one of just two schools (Bishop’s in La Jolla was the other) to be ranked on both the boys’ (2nd) and girls’ (3rd) lists. Black’s girls, the two-time defending CIF Open champs, will include junior standouts Lyna Fowler and Asha Gidwani along with sophomore Elina Shalaev. Among others, the boy’s roster features senior Praneet Varade and and junior Zachary Pellouchoud.
Senior Russell Soohoo, an elite junior player who has never played high school tennis, has joined the team for his final year and should make an impact in both singles and doubles.
“We’ve got some gifted players and a lot of options,” admitted Black. “We’re blessed with the kind of overall balance a lot of schools don’t have. Both of our teams also have plenty of recent experience winning at the top level.”
Torrey Pines figures to offer CCA the most resistance. The Falcons, who will be under the reins of last year’s girls’ coach Don Chu, have won all five CIF Open Division boys’ titles and had run off four consecutive girls’ titles before Canyon Crest won in 2018. But the Torrey girls were not a factor last year and the boys have graduated a significant amount of firepower since earning their 2019 crown. Facts in hand and giving CCA it’s due, Chu is hardly ready to simply concede.
“We’re looking very, very good, as strong as we’ve been in the past,” he said. “This could be a very special year. The kids are just thrilled to have sports back and feel lucky to have a season. The team atmosphere has been great. We’ve got a friendly rivalry with CCA and I think we’ll be very competitive. They’re going to know we’re there—know we’re next door.”
Chu has a pair of senior co-captains anchoring both of his teams. Alex Stafford and Maxim Pogorelov will figure prominently in both singles and doubles on the boys’ side while Sophia Vent and Neha Pubbi supply leadership for the girls.
Powered by its own strong girls’ contingent, San Dieguito should find itself solidly in the center of the standings and, if its boys continue to improve, a shot to do better. For the girls, JoJo Bear, now a junior, is among the section’s better singles players and senior Lesa Ritchie will be a big doubles contributor. Just this week senior Indya Nespor, who skipped last season while training abroad, committed to coming back for 2021 and will give Tomasi two No. 1-types at the top of the ladder. Mentally tough junior Steven Veld looks promising for a young boys’ outfit, along with junior Tommy Becker and sophomore Dylan Jones.
“We’re stepping up to a higher level of league competition which I think will be good for us,” said Tomasi. “Canyon Crest and Torrey Pines are likely 1-2 in the league but if we play well, who knows?”
It appears La Costa Canyon, under the coaching duo of Bill McGrath and Kimara Solomon, will be relying heavily on its boys’ crew which had posted a 7-0 mark a year ago before CoVid hit. Eight of McGrath’s nine returners are seniors, headlined by versatile Grant Lumkong. Solomon has a bit of a rebuild in her first year as head coach of the Maverick girls. Carlsbad, with veteran Clayton Johnson mentoring the boys and newcomer Yoke Tanko taking the reins of the girls should be improved. Top names for the Lancers are four-year senior Noah Munitz and sophomores Tyler Procter and Rishab Bora for the boys and senior Elizabeth Marquiss for the girls.
Q&A WITH SAN DIEGUITO HEAD COACH JOE TOMASI
With nearly a quarter of a century in the books at San Dieguito, three-time Southern California Girls’ Tennis Coach of the Year Joe Tomasi sat down recently and looked back on his career, including his start in the sport, those who helped him along the way and the keys to his longevity.
Q—Your early days as a tennis player were much different than what most young players are exposed to today. What can you tell us about how you got started?
TOMASI—Our family moved to Tacoma (WA) when I was in fourth grade and it seemed like most of the kids played either soccer or tennis. So, using a 10-year-old’s way of thinking, I started playing both as a way to make friends.
I was a left-hander and made the high school tennis team, playing mostly doubles. I was a solid player but it was much different compared to what’s going on today. We didn’t have the same kind of resources and certainly didn’t put in the kind of time they do now.
Q—You were in a car accident that caused a significant detour for you, tennis-wise. What happened?
TOMASI—It happened when I was 21. I seriously injured my left shoulder and started having migraines. I was in-and-out of therapy for two years. Ultimately, it seemed that heat helped with both the shoulder and the migraines, so I moved from Tacoma to Palm Springs in 1991. I started hitting again, playing a lot and got a job working at the Marriott Desert Springs Tennis Club, first in the pro shop and eventually teaching at the resort.
Q—How did you come to the conclusion that you wanted to make a career out of coaching tennis?
TOMASI—Some of my co-workers at the club told me about a multi-sport international camp in Toronto that was run every summer. They suggested that I should go and find out if I’d really like teaching and coaching.
I went. I taught all day long six days a week for four months and it was great. I did that for four years, the last three I was in charge of the tennis program on a 20-court facility with a staff of 25. In 1994, I moved to San Diego and started teaching group and private lessons at Surf & Turf Tennis Club in Del Mar. I knew I wanted to coach at the high school level and was hired at SDA in 1996. As they say, the rest is history.
Q—What do you remember about your early days at SDA?
TOMASI—In the early ’90s, San Dieguito shut down, dropped sports and re-opened as San Dieguito Academy. When I came aboard, the school was just re-starting its athletic program, I was one of the first people they hired and the slate was wiped clean.
There were some positives to that but it seemed like nobody was completely sure what they were doing and nobody at the school really provided me any direction. It took me a good four-to-five years to get the system I wanted in place.
Q—What was important to you in terms of making progress after basically starting from scratch?
TOMASI—I was very fortunate to be associated with several people who provided guidance in areas where I lacked knowledge. Ron Marquez (now at the CIF office but then a coach at University of San Diego High School which later became Cathedral Catholic) was a huge help. He gave me so much advice about teams in the section, how to deal with high school kids and just letting me know when I was on the right path.
The late, great Robbin Adair, the head coach at Coronado High School for 40 years, encouraged me and was a fantastic resource. When things were tough, I remember him saying that he could see “at some point, you will have one of the county’s top teams.” That gave me hope. For the last 15 years, Kevin Brown, whether coaching at Orange Glen or being part of the CIF, has been great in regard to advice about building and maintaining a program.
Q—What keeps you motivated?
TOMASI—A lot of it is me personally. I’ve always been very competitive and love competing through my teams. One of the fun parts over the years has been trying to get these kids to believe in themselves. For a long time, our program was kind of an underdog, building from ground zero. Other schools used to sort of look at us like, “OK, we’ll play you, we need a win.” Those early years, we struggled to be competitive.
Maybe because of that, every year, even after we’ve become pretty good at the county level, I feel like we have to prove ourselves and show that we can consistently be good and not just have a good season or two and then fade away. It’s kind of fun and it’s a big change, now that we’ve got respect sometimes teams don’t want to play us.
Q—How, if at all, has your coaching style shifted over the years?
TOMASI—In the early years, I was just trying to find a system that worked and that sometimes required a much more aggressive, demanding persona. Overall, I’d say the last 15 years with the kids we get at SDA, I have learned not to be as “in your face” and take a more flexible approach.
Kids’ priorities have changed—college opportunities, rankings, etc. have become an integral part of their thought process. Communication is so important. If you don’t adapt and, in some case, change, it’s difficult to have success.
A few years back, one of my top players, Jenn Kerr, came to me and said, essentially, “if you take a different approach with the players, you’ll get a better response and the team will be more successful.” I know I don’t know everything and in that case, the advice was right. Flexibility is so key and with some of the top players, if you don’t have that, they’ll walk away.
Q—How long do you anticipate you’ll continue to coach?
TOMASI—It’s funny, in the beginning, I didn’t expect to go past four years (laugh) and here we are now. I think I’d like to reach 30 years.
But, you know what, I’m still enjoying every minute of it. It’s so much fun, just being with the kids, listening to them talk and grow up. There are so many friendships that carry on past high school with not only the players but the families. This is a relatively small community and I’ve coached over 1,000 kids at SDA.
Q—Can you talk a little about the difficulties you’ve experienced during this “Covid era?”
TOMASI—In nearly 25 years, I’ve seen pretty much everything, but this was definitely the toughest thing I’ve faced in my career. Just the ups-and-downs of emotion.
I had a parent call recently who said his kid “hadn’t been playing the last few months, has been depressed and didn’t want to leave the house.” The player had just hit the wall in regard to all the things going on and was having a really tough time.
I’ve heard this type of story time and again. It’s something most of us have never dealt with and when these kids get back, it will be a little like totally starting over. I think there’s going to be a ton of excitement.
Q—Is there anything positive that you’ve drawn from the Covid experience?
TOMASI—Well, first, I’m very fortunate that everybody in my family is fine and I’m appreciative of the fact that the time has allowed me to visit my family more than I otherwise would have been able to.
As far as our team, I know I don’t want them to take anything for granted and want to make sure that is a point of emphasis from day one. As we come back, I hope our kids are going to soak all of this in, enjoy it as much as possible and I expect to see them value all sorts of things in a whole different way.
Q—What would make this season a success from your perspective?
TOMASI—My job is to make sure each of our players is successful in any particular way they define it. That could be making the team, it could be simply winning a game or match at our level. First and foremost, I want to put them into the best situation we can, individually and collectively. If that means we’re near the top of the pack, that will be great but just getting through the season and getting these kids back into a normal routine would be a “win” from my perspective.
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