First published in the Nov. 18 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
After three full decades in the business, La Cañada High School tennis coach Will Moravec is not a fan of fancy catchphrases. But even Moravec could have deserved a total pardon if “the third time’s a charm” was bouncing around in his mind the past couple weeks.
Because after two hotly contested losses to Rio Hondo League rival San Marino during the regular season and a torrid 10 days of postseason play, the Spartans and Titans had negotiated their ways through opposite sides of the CIF-SS Division I tournament bracket and found themselves facing off for the championship last Friday afternoon at the Claremont Club. (Outlook Valley Sun sports department research shows it was perhaps the first time in school history that any Spartan athletic team had played a Rio Hondo League opponent in a CIF title-deciding matchup; LCHS opened in 1963.)
Credit Moravec for some tactical tinkering with the Spartans’ lineup and full marks to the players themselves for a spirited effort, but La Cañada still came out on the short end of a 10-8 decision, surrendering the title in a most memorable fashion.
The Spartans entered the final set of the day needing just a draw (nine set wins apiece) to capture the championship, based on their overall domination in sets won over the duration of the afternoon. But San Marino’s Katie Lui and Valerie Kuo rallied from a 5-3 deficit and survived their opponents’ two championship points to win the set 7-5, which resulted in a narrow 10-8 victory for the Titans.
“As a competitor, you want your opponent to know that they had to put out 100% to beat you and that is surely what happened today,” said a wistful Moravec. “San Marino knew that they had to play their best to beat us, and they did.”
For most of the day it looked like La Cañada was going to avenge the San Marino’s two 11-7 regular-season victories that resulted in a Rio Hondo League championship, but winning a ninth set proved elusive even though the Spartans racked up sets with video game proficiency. La Cañada held an 8-5 set advantage, with victory appearing nearly certain. Sophomore Maren Urata had posted a major upset over San Marino’s freshman Tianmei Wang to further slide the scaled in the Spartans’ advantage.
“That was the win of the match,” said Moravec, whose team was seeking its first CIF title since winning the Division 2 crown in 2018.
But the Titans went on a stunning run by winning the final five sets of the afternoon, turning an 8-5 deficit into a 10-8 victory.
Junior Tsehay Driscoll led La Cañada, winning all three of her singles sets in sometimes dominating and dynamic fashion. Sophomore Maya Urata went 2-1 in singles action and the doubles squad of senior Elliana Hana and junior Allison Woo also went 2-1 to lead the scoring. Senior Maya Urata also collected a win in singles play. The doubles teams of senior Natalie Son and junior Riley Thornburgh and junior Amanda Grabel and senior Nicole Sorensen made San Marino fight for every point.
“We were not expected to win,” Moravec continued. “San Marino is a great team and it was a huge accomplishment just to get to the point where we had a chance to win the match. What I am most proud of is that everyone contributed. We can’t get anywhere if Elliana and Allison didn’t play as well as they did. Maren had that big upset win. And Tsehay was just dominant.”
Though his team lost, Moravec was impressed with the atmosphere at the Claremont Club, where raucous celebrations accompanied every important point and every nook and cranny of the spacious property was seemingly filled with a player or family member.
“A couple of CIF officials told me it was the longest finals ever,” Moravec said of the almost four-hour match. “It was great to play another team from our league in the finals. That says a lot about the Rio Hondo League.”
The Spartans concluded the season with a 12-3-1 overall record after having finished as the Rio Hondo League’s runner-up with a 6-2 mark in league competition.
“We wanted a chance and we got it,” Moravec said. “Things almost went our way this year.”