To a casual observer, it would seem that not much changed between the first and second Pacific Coast League meetings of rivals University High and Corona del Mar.
The Trojans beat CdM, 14-4, in the second league meeting Tuesday on the Sea Kings' courts, the same score as the first meeting. And, just like before, Uni won eight singles sets and six doubles sets.
But, in terms of competitive sets, the Sea Kings showed just how much they have improved.
Seven of their 14 lost sets were by scores of 6-3 or closer. Uni Coach John Kessler's nervousness he said he felt before the match was ultimately justified.
In the end, however, it wasn't enough to deny University (13-1, 8-0 in league) at least a share of its fourth straight league title. CdM (14-3, 6-2) will more than likely finish second for the second straight year.
"They have more depth and they have more tournament-tough girls," CdM Coach Brian Ricker said. "It's just too much talent for us, but yes, absolutely we competed better today than last time. I think the improvement is 50% [that] we're just getting better, and 50% [that] we got to talk about it and practice some down-the-line returns with people playing that format ... We showed that we improved today."
CdM's senior No. 1 singles player Lauren Thaxter missed Tuesday's match due to sickness. Yet CdM, ranked No. 4 in CIF Southern Section Division 1, still had a chance for a 3-3 tie after the first round against the No. 2 Trojans.
Siena Sharf and Jasie Dunk won, 6-3, at No. 2 doubles, handing Uni's Kyla Scott and Marissa Williams their first loss in league. And CdM's Taylor Fogarty and Erica Chen easily beat Uni's No. 3 team of Sarah Mae Garcia and Kyara Sutton, 6-1.
CdM sophomore Elena Fish, playing at No. 1 singles in Thaxter's absence, battled before falling to Uni's Alyssa Rudin, 7-5.
"I know that they were in a different mental place," Kessler said. "This time, I thought they were going to come out and challenge us. That first round, give the girl Fish a lot of credit. She played Rudin really hard. That easily could have gone 3-3, and I thought their No. 2 and 3 doubles stepped up and played well. Even though the score's the same score, I thought CdM played really well. I could tell that Brian had a day [Monday] to practice for us, because I thought they played us differently today ... Brian's just a great coach. You give him a day, and you see a different result."
University dominated the second round, sweeping all six sets for a 10-2 lead that clinched the match. But even in that round, there were positives for the Sea Kings. Sharf and Dunk also nearly handed Uni's No. 1 team of Danielle Pham and Judy Kam their first loss in league.
Sharf and Dunk each served for the set, but Pham and Kam broke each time. Uni's duo then won in a tiebreaker, 7-6 (7-4).
In the teams' first league meeting, Pham and Kam, as well as Scott and Williams, both easily swept with scores ranging from 6-0 to 6-2.
"[Pham] didn't practice [Monday], and her side is killing her," Kessler said of his senior captain. "I probably should have sat her out, but she's such an important part of this team. That would have been a different story. I don't think Judy and whoever win that first set [against CdM's No. 1 team of Kenzie Purcifull and Kimmia Naaseh]."
Gerdau accounted for CdM's lone singles win, beating a Uni substitute in the third round. Fogarty and Chen won two of three doubles sets, beating Kim and substitute Michelle Maddox, 6-2, in the third round.
Ricker said Fogarty and Chen had lost two sets in CdM's big 10-8 road win over Santa Barbara on Saturday.
"It's nice that we have fighters like that, that don't feel sorry for themselves but come back and keep fighting," Ricker said. "In all my years of coaching, I've seen quite a few schools give up and tank that third round. It actually can get a little ugly, but the CdM girls don't do that. They fight right until the end, and they see the value of how those matches can help them. It's just not in their nature to give up like that."
Corona del Mar closes out league against Beckman on Thursday and Northwood on Monday. The league finals are Oct. 29-30, at Beckman, and the Sea Kings close out their regular season with a key home match against Dana Hills on Nov. 1. The Dolphins are ranked No. 7 in Division 1.
The Sea Kings beat Dana Hills, 12-6, in the teams' first nonleague meeting. A win in the rematch should secure CdM the No. 4 seed in the Division 1 playoffs, Ricker said.
"Big picture, if you look at this whole season, we've gone way past my expectations," Ricker said. "To win by dominating doubles in most of the matches and beating their No. 3 singles [player] is a hard way to do it, but now we've done it against many, many schools. We've earned ourselves a spot in that 4-5 spot [in Division 1], which is a great accomplishment for this team."