University boys tennis falls to Punahou of Hawaii in finals of All-American tournament

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NEWPORT BEACH — University boys tennis coach John Kessler joked that he knew his Trojans, coming off consecutive comeback victories at the All-American tournament, were in trouble when they took an early lead against Punahou of Hawaii in the final Saturday.

Kessler maintained his sense of humor and pride in his team after Punahou lived up to its No. 1 seed by dramatically rallying to dethrone reigning champion University 5-4 at Palisades Tennis Club.

Punahou captured the prestigious, 16-team tournament for the first time.

“I’m proud of them. We battled,” Kessler said of his squad, which suffered its first loss the season. “I think we’re a pretty deep team and they are as well. They just came out on top. It happens.”

“You got to lose with class,” the veteran coach added. “It’s OK. There’s bigger things coming (this season) hopefully.”

University, a four-time winner of the national event, opened a 2-1 lead after the teams’ three doubles sets. Punahou responded by claiming four of the six singles sets. The Honolulu powerhouse sprinted to the victory, claiming the final three sets that finished at No. 2 singles, No. 6 singles and No. 5 singles, respectively.

Dozens of players and spectators crowded the courts in the far corner of the club to watch the No. 5 and No. 6 singles decide the final margin. The tournament format challenged the schools to use six players for singles in the finals instead of five in earlier rounds.

Punahou’s No. 6 Seiya Kudo edged University freshman left-hander Langston Walter-Wu 8-7 (7-2) in a tie-breaker. No. 5 Tanner Ige then defeated Trojans’ sophomore left-hander Joe Chan 8-6 for the championship-clinching point, ignite a wild celebration by Punahou.

“It’s massive,” Punahou coach Ikaika Jobe said of the victory, “especially for a Hawaii team to come here for everyone to take us seriously this time. A lot of the mainland teams don’t really take the Hawaii guys as seriously so it was really nice to be able to showcase our talent.”

Final: Punahou of Hawaii edges ⁦@UNI_ATHLETICS⁩ 5-4 to win the National All-American tourney, big-time clash came down to depth ⁦@ocvarsity⁩ 🎾

— Dan Albano (@ocvarsityguy) March 26, 2023

University rallied in the semifinals to edge No. 2 seeded Menlo 4-4 on games (57-47) to reach its ninth tournament final. The Trojans trailed 3-0 after doubles. Punahou defeated Peninsula 5-3 in the other semifinal.

On Friday, University rallied to defeat Memphis University School of Tennessee 5-3 after trailing the quarterfinal match 2-1.

The Trojans, whose main goal is to defend their CIF-SS Open Division crown, have quickly revamped this spring.

They have added transfer James MacDonald at the top of the lineup and sophomore Ari Lens, who played at No. 4 singles in the final. The duo joins returning standouts Ani Gupta (Claremont-Mudd-Scripps commit) and SangHyuk Im.

University’s matching was especially effective at No. 1 doubles. MacDonald and Im won in the finals 8-7 (7-4). Andrew Ke and Bradley Yung added an 8-6 win at No. 3 doubles.

Great start for @UNI_ATHLETICS as it wins 2/3 matches in doubles, including this one at #1 in a tie-breaker by SangHyuk Im and James MacDonald @ocvarsity 🎾

— Dan Albano (@ocvarsityguy) March 25, 2023

The Trojans moves have come after standout sophomore twins Champion and Winner Oke decided not to play high school this season.

But despite all the moves, University was again in contention Saturday.

“The way the team all comes together as one, I really was not expecting that,” said MacDonald, a former Brentwood standout who didn’t play high school tennis last season. “We all practice together, train hard together, and it’s a great to see our success as a team.

“Coach (Kessler) fosters a really great environment that brings all the kids together,” MacDonald added. “It’s an experience that I’m so glad that I’m taking part in.”

MacDonald and Gupta, along with the Corona del Mar duo of Niels Hoffmann and Jack Cross, were selected to the all-tournament team.

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