In 2010, an 11 year-old Adam Sraberg ’17 approached Harvard-Westlake boys’ tennis program head Chris Simpson and Stanford tennis star Ryan Thacher ’08.
“I want to be a star tennis player,” Sraberg said.
“That requires a lot of hard work, Adam,” Simpson told him.
“I’m up for it. I want to come play for you and I’m going to quit baseball to be a tennis star.”
Fast-forward seven years: Sraberg is a captain of Simpson’s program, which has become one of the best tennis teams in southern California. The squad completes a near-perfect season, goes 28-3 overall, remains undefeated in mission league for the 16th year in a row and is crowned CIF champions.
After losing in the CIF championship in 2014 and 2015, and being eliminated in the second round of CIF in 2016, the senior captains were all too familiar with the sting of defeat and were determined not to feel it again. Despite injuries to key players like Stanley Morris ’18 , the squad started the season firing on all cylinders, dominating its first 14 opponents by at least 13 of a maximum 18 sets in each match.
Simpson spoke highly of his squad’s top three seniors: Sraberg, Jed Kronenberg, and Jacob Tucker.
Sraberg, the former baseball player turned Vanderbilt tennis recruit, is ranked 60th best senior in the nation per tennisrecuirting.net
“(Sraberg) is our best singles player and a fantastic doubles player,” Simpson said. “He’s very comfortable taking initiative at the No. 1 spot. He has beaten top players, and in his mind it’s all fair game. He believes in himself and has weapons to beat pretty much anybody out there.”
Ranked 173 in the nation, Pomona-Pitzer commit Kronenberg has never lost an individual mission league match in his high school tennis career.
“He’s a fantastic doubles player,” Simpson said. “A really good team guy, doesn’t have an ego and is easily my second best player, and on any given day can be my No. 1 too. You don’t want to be playing Jed in the third [set], in singles, after two strong matches against other Harvard-Westlake varsity players. He’s super fit and he’ll make you run (after) every ball, and if you’re tired or lacking confidence, I'll put my money on Jed every time.”
The final senior is captain Jacob Tucker ’17, whose teammates and coaches rely on to energize the team with his quality play and enthusiasm. While his ranking of 448 isn't as high as some of his teammates the value his charismatic presence brings to the team is immeasurable.
“Tucker stopped tournaments,” Simpson said. “He’s the loudest guy on the team. He likes to be the center of attention. He is all about team. You always need to have a Jacob Tucker on a good team that wants to win because he provides all the free entertainment. He is just charged and full of energy when the team needs it. He is also all the laughs, all the comical stuff, he doesn’t care, even if it's at his own expense.”
Kronenberg expressed similar sentiments on Tucker: "He's the heart and soul of the team," he said.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the team features dynamic freshmen David Arkow ’20 and Timothy Li ’20.
Arkow is a 5-star recruit ranked 48th in the nation among freshmen. His father played tennis at Harvard University and Arkow hopes to one day play college tennis.
“Arkow probably had the best start to a freshman career I've ever seen in Harvard-Westlake history,” Simpson said. “He’s beaten a UCLA-bound senior and other top-ranked players. He’s very professional and mature on the court, and this year he’s come out and figured out he can play singles at the varsity level. He’s not even flinching that he’s playing at a high level, or a five-star blue chip stud, he just goes out and hits the ball. He’s so intelligent, I’ve hardly had to coach him. His sportsmanship is very good, he’ll never shout or say a bad word about anybody or throw a bad word. He makes the sport and the program look really good.”
While Arkow primarily plays singles, Li-ranked 101 in the nation-is a doubles specialist. He rarely gets nervous and according to Tucker, has "ice in his veins." His composure in pressure situations makes him a valuable partner.
“Timo is a fantastic doubles player,” Simpson said. “He’s got major doubles weapons. If he’s not with us he’s doing something tennis related. That is how good he is. He’s a fantastic doubles player, good athletic ability and feels at home on the doubles court. When he plays with Jed they are unstoppable.”
For other teams, losing the talent of players like Sraberg, Kronenberg, and Tucker may entail a year of rebuilding. However, Simpson believes the depth of this squad will leave them in good hands next year.
"Those two freshmen are as good as Adam and Jed and they will be better than Adam and Jed in a year or two at the most. When they are seniors, they are going to be lights out. Full on lights out players. "
The first loss of the season didn’t come until March 25 against Palisades Charter in the All-American Invitational Tournament in Newport Beach. Standout freshman Li was playing in an out of school tournament, and the squad missed him dearly. However, the boys did not let the loss demoralize them, and instead used it to add fuel to the fire.
“We had gone farther than HW has ever gone before in the tournament, and it was a sign to us that our team was capable of accomplishing the unprecedented,” Tucker said.
The squad proceeded to win its next three matches, including an 18-0 shutout of Notre Dame, before going on Spring Break.
In their first match after spring break, the Wolverines faced defending CIF champions Peninsula. Peninsula led 9-8 heading into the 18th and final match of the day. The Wolverines seem poised to win (Harvard-Westlake held the tiebreaker had it finished 9-9), with Sraberg leading UC Davis commit Dariush Jalali (ranked 106) five games to three. It was match point for Sraberg, who led the game 40-0. He collapsed. Jalali rallied to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and Peninsula won 10-8.
“The only thing that could have gone better this season is that we could have gone undefeated if not for the one loss to Peninsula,” Tucker said. “However, that loss taught us a lot, and without it, I don’t know if we would’ve been hungry enough to take home the title.”
Kronenberg recognized that they had to dial back in if they were to achieve their goal of a CIF championship
“The Peninsula loss was a huge wake up call for us. We had been destroying every team, but now we knew we had to improve again," Kronenberg said. Our next few practices were beyond intense. We were determined to play better."
The boys did just that, delivering an 18-0 shutout against crosstown rival Loyola and two more dominant wins to close out the regular season, remaining undefeated in the Mission League.
The tennis program has not lost a Mission League match since Simpson took over the program 16 years ago. His record is 188-0, three wins shy of the state record, a fact not lost upon the players.
“The amazing thing is so many teams year after year never want to be that team or those guys that broke the run, so we always play with the same type of pressure,” Simpson said. “In our minds we are confident and we know there's a good chance we are going to continue the run and keep it going every year.”
The Wolverines continued their dominance in the playoffs. They trounced Santa Barbara 16-2, and then followed up with a 14-4 win over Northwood.
In the quarterfinals, they faced a familiar foe in Los Alamitos, who had eliminated the Wolverines in each of the past two year. In 2015, the Griffins beat the Wolverines in a dramatic CIF final. After knocking out the Wolverines in the second round in 2016 the Griffins’ players added insult to injury by wearing their 2015 championship rings in the handshake line to press the cold rubies into Wolverine palms.
“It crushed me," Kronenberg said. “We fought so hard to win that day only for them to be jerks afterwards while we were upset about the loss.”
It felt like a knife to the stomach. I would not let them beat me again.—Adam Sraberg
The feelings of bitterness are still strong in the other players.
“It felt like a knife to the stomach,” a similarly solemn Sraberg said. “I would not let them beat me again.”
This time around, a Wolverines side determined to have rings of their own defeated Los Alamitos 10-8.
"Whenever we had played against Los Al on big stages, our team crumpled mentally. The pressure would get to us,” Tucker said. “The fact that the match against Los Al was close gave us the confidence we needed to know that we could play our best tennis in tight moments. If we had won by a huge margin, I don't know if we would've been able to pull off what we did throughout the rest of the week.”
After getting their retribution, the Wolverines delivered a more decisive performance in the semifinals, routing University in the semifinals by a score of 15-3.
“[Our win against University] was without a doubt the best display of our abilities as tennis players,” Sraberg said after the match. “I can attribute that to the mental lessons we learned and the huge fanatic support. If we are on as a team, we can beat anyone in the country.”
Having made it to the finals for the third time in four years, the seniors were determined to end their high school tennis careers with a victory. Prior to the match, Tucker reflected upon what getting his first CIF championship ring would mean to him.
“Winning CIF would mean that all the hours I’ve put in since I started tennis at four years old, that my fellow seniors have put in since freshman year, and that the team has trained this year, would be so freaking worth it,” he said.
The CIF-SS DI finals against defending champions Peninsula played out like a dream for the Wolverines.
They traded points back and forth all day, neither team able to acquire the 10 match points required to clinch the victory. Prior to the final match of the day, the score was 9-8 Wolverines. A 9-9 result would’ve meant a win for Peninsula, as they had won more games.
So here they were again, Sraberg and Jalali in the 18th and decisive match. Sraberg led five sets to three, and led the game 40-0.
All eyes were on Sraberg. The fate of the tennis team’s season and the seniors’ last chance at a championship ring lay in his hands. The Wolverines’ ace was determined to make good on his second chance at Jalali and Peninsula.
“I told myself I was the better player. I knew how much I wanted to win and I owed it to myself and my teammates to fight my tail off,” Sraberg said. “And that’s exactly what I did.”
Indeed, in the biggest moment of his tennis career, Sraberg delivered a 6-3 win for the Wolverines. As he watched his final forehand whizz past Jalali, Sraberg fell down to the court in elation, as his teammates hopped the fence and stormed the court. The final match score was 10-8. The blood, sweat, and tears of this season all became worth it. The Wolverines had won CIF.
“I have dreamed of clinching like that since I was a little kid,” Sraberg said. “To have it become a reality is truly incredible. I am beyond proud of every member of this team.”
Sraberg’s teammates rushed the court to celebrate their dramatic victory.
“Rushing the court was one of the best moments of my life ever. I can’t believe we finally won, it’s totally unreal,” Kronenberg said.
Simpson expressed that he couldn’t have been any prouder of his team, especially his seniors.
“It was a fantastic performance full of fight and grit when needed,” Simpson said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to play against our seniors today. They brought two years of motivation, hunger and desire to this final having lost two previous finals. They wanted it more than anything: A ring in their senior year. [I am] So proud of them and honored to be their coach.”
It was a storybook ending for the players. They were able to win, and win on their own terms.
“I’m beyond proud of the boys today, not just for winning, but for how we won,” Tucker said. “We won with class, style and by having to fight it out until the sweet end. We proved today not just who we are as athletes, but who we are as people. We are guys who are determined and tenacious. We are winners.”
Although they had achieved their ultimate goal of winning a CIF ring, the Wolverines’ season didn’t end there. They advanced to the CIF State regionals where they fell 5-2 to the heavily favored Torrey Pines in the finals.
Although they didn’t win, the team's camaraderie was on full display. The runners-up could be seen smiling and laughing as they enjoyed their final moments of their magical season together.
“After a whole season of being together, nothing could make me prouder than finally getting a ring with my teammates,” Kronenberg said. “Win or lose, we battled and fought for each other, which is all I could want for my last high school match. I'll miss these guys.”