After Josh Kliger and Carson Williams lost in the CIF doubles division quarterfinals last year at the Ojai Tennis Tournament, Corona del Mar High Coach Jamie Gresh gave them a goal.
The goal was simple enough: Return to the tournament next year and win the whole thing.
The time has come for Kliger and Williams, CdM's senior captains, to see if they can accomplish that goal. The 114th annual version of the prestigious tournament starts Thursday.
Kliger and Williams are the lone Newport-Mesa doubles team competing. Newport Harbor junior Reese Stalder and CdM sophomore Bjorn Hoffmann are competing in the CIF singles division, as is Fairmont Prep sophomore Max Pham, a Newport Coast resident.
Kliger has missed more than a month of matches with a left knee injury. He began hitting again last week and returned to match action Tuesday, sweeping with Williams in CdM's Pacific Coast League win over Woodbridge. Kliger and Williams, seeded eighth, open their Ojai tournament Thursday at 11 a.m. at The Thacher School against a team from Vista Murrieta
"Carson and Josh have some good expectations, because they've done it before," Gresh said. "It's definitely the pinnacle of the season for the three guys that go [from each school] … I think these guys realize how much there is at stake, and how much there is to prove."
Should they win their opener, Kliger and Williams would play a team from Cerritos or Redlands in the round of 32 at 3:30 p.m. Thursday. Win their first three matches, and Kliger and Williams would likely tangle with top-seeded Drew Dawson and Arash Hafezi of league rival University on Friday afternoon in the quarterfinals.
The Notre Dame-bound Dawson is going for his third CIF doubles division win at "The Ojai," with three different partners. He won it with Stefan Menichella two years ago, and with Tyler Lu last year. Dawson would be the first player to win the tournament with three different partners, and the first to win three times overall since Charles Rogers of Los Angeles High in 1907-09.
"I think Drew's ready for it," University Coach John Kessler said. "He's a big player. The All-American Tournament, he loves that tournament. He's been on that All-American team for all four years … he's a big-time player."
Still, Kessler said he would prefer not having to face league rival CdM along the way.
"I'd rather us play people you don't know," Kessler said. "You play guys that know us, and there's a rivalry and they're also friends, that's not easy. Josh and Carson are good. That's going to be tough. There are road blocks along the way, so we'll see … By the time we see him, Josh is going to have some matches under his belt. If he gets matches under his belt and they make it to us, I think they're going to be dangerous. If he's on, and Carson's at the net, it's dangerous."
Newport Harbor's Stalder is also coming back from injury, a recurring abdominal strain. But Stalder, ranked No. 7 in the Southern California boys' 18s, does have momentum as he recently won the Harper Ink tournament in San Diego. He is undefeated for the Sailors during the current high school season.
Stalder is being coached by Gresh at Ojai, and said he is rooming with Hoffmann. Stalder opens his tournament with a round of 64 match against Jayden Silpachai of Thousand Oaks on Thursday at 8 a.m. at Libbey Park South. He said he has never faced Silpachai in the past.
In the round of 16, Stalder could face Ryan Shen of Newberry Park, to whom he dropped a 6-3, 7-6 decision in the semifinals of the Fullerton junior tournament in February. Shen is ranked No. 16 in Southern California.
This is Stalder's first time playing in the CIF division at Ojai. Last year, he played in the 16s division, advancing to the round of 16.
"It's really nice," Stalder said of playing at Ojai. "They take the tournament really serious there. Some junior tournaments, it's just like your parents are watching."
Hoffmann opens his tournament against Evan Sheng of Canyon Crest at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at The Thacher School. Should he win, Hoffmann, ranked No. 8 in Southern California in the 16s, would most likely have a tough match against Peninsula High freshman Connor Hance, last year's Easter Bowl 14s champion.
Pham of Fairmont Prep plays the tournament's top overall seed, Michael Genender of Harvard-Westlake, in his first CIF singles division match at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at Libbey Park.
Other locals competing in the Ojai junior tournament include No. 2-seeded Austin Di Giulio of Newport Beach in the boys' 14 singles, and the CdM tandem of Siena Sharf and Jasie Dunk in girls' 18 doubles. Newport Beach resident Erin O'Connor is in the boys' 16 singles draw, and Newport Coast resident Kristina Evloeva is playing in girls' 18 singles.
Orange Coast College has both men's and women's players competing in the Community College divisions, which also begin Thursday.
The Pac-12 Conference is also again conducting its men's team and women's individual championships at The Ojai. The men's team final is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday at Libbey Park.