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Strong Return

El Camino Real is in a good position to win fourth consecutive City title

May 08, 2003|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

They've got stars. They've got role players. They've battled injuries. And they've won three consecutive championships.

The Lakers? Marvin Jones loves them, but he's talking about his El Camino Real boys' tennis team.

"We're just like them," Jones said. "Last year, the Lakers' whole drive was to three-peat, and that was our goal, too. This year, they're going for a four-peat, and so are we."

El Camino Real's drive to a fourth consecutive City Section title has been a veritable tour de force.

The Conquistadores, who have won 58 of their last 59 matches, open the playoffs at 1 p.m. today against visiting Sun Valley Poly.

"It never gets repetitive when you win championships," said No. 1 singles player Bruce Aiken, who, along with fellow senior Nick Kogan, has known almost nothing but success in his four-year varsity career.

"I think our chances are as good as any other year. It's a challenge that the whole team takes upon themselves to keep going. It'll be a disappointment to all of us if we don't win."

El Camino Real, the top-seeded team in the City playoffs and the No. 10 team in The Times' rankings, is riding a 47-match winning streak since April 13, 2000. The Conquistadores suffered their only loss in almost four years -- a 5-2 regular-season decision to Granada Hills -- in the teams' second West Valley League meeting that year.

"It's pretty amazing," said Kogan, who has played No. 1 doubles the last four years. "We take every match as it comes, we all want to win, we have the same goal, and we all work hard towards it."

The team's leader is Aiken, who missed much of last season because of a broken thumb. The 5-foot-6, 130-pound senior is 12-0 in dual matches this year, advanced to the quarterfinals of the recent Ojai tournament, and plans to attend USC on two academic scholarships and walk on to the men's tennis team in the fall.

"Bruce Aiken has really improved the last couple of years. He was always good, but he's become a really outstanding player now," said Granada Hills Coach Ron Wood, whose team has lost to the Conquistadores in the City Championship match the last three years.

"They've just got too many guns," Wood said. "What's happened is, they were always a respectable team, and they're just getting top talent in there, with no drop-off."

This season is a case in point. The Conquistadores lost two members of last year's title team to graduation, including No. 1 singles player Dan Nguyen, but found capable replacements in Aiken and No. 2 doubles player Chad Gerber, a freshman.

Aiken and the No. 2 doubles team, which includes Isaac Adrabi, are undefeated in dual matches. Also unbeaten are No. 2 Phil Gegenheimer (13-0), a junior, and No. 3 Troy Aiken (12-0), Bruce's sophomore brother, No. 4 Dustin Lang (13-0), a sophomore, and the top doubles team of Kogan and sophomore partner Dan Escobedo (11-0).

The Conquistadores also have gotten key contributions from senior Andrew Engelstein, junior Jason Park and sophomore Alex Tobon, who have been interchanged on the third doubles team because of injuries.

"We generally are pretty confident in the team," Troy Aiken said. "We've had people step up, and we trust in each other to play our matches and take it one point at a time."

The Conquistadores' methods are a reflection of their coach, whom the players credit for much of their success.

Jones guided Woodland Hills Taft to three consecutive City finals, but no titles, from 1993-95 before arriving at El Camino Real in the fall of 1999. The school won its first boys' tennis title a few months later.

Comparisons to the Lakers don't end with the quests for four titles in a row.

Jones blends a hands-on approach to practices -- where the teaching pro often hits with his players -- with a decidedly calm and reserved match-day manner that is reminiscent of another successful coach.

"He's like Phil Jackson," Kogan said. "He just stands back and watches. He has a lot of confidence in us, and he just goes out and lets us play."

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