His team behind in the first round of Tuesday's CIF Southern Section Division 2 semifinal tennis match, sophomore Ben Gelfand maintained his cool under pressure, outlasting Esperanza's Shane Cruz in a tiebreaker to even up the score and shift momentum to the Vikings' side of the court.
Santa Monica cruised from there, taking four out of six sets in the second round and five out of six sets in the third round against the gritty Century League champions to post a convincing 12-6 victory and advance to the finals for the second straight season.
Now, the second-seeded Vikings (12-4) will face top-seeded Palm Desert (21-1) next Wednesday at The Claremont Club in a rematch of last year's championship meeting in which Palm Desert prevailed, 10-8.
Gelfand had a match point with Cruz serving at 30-40 in the 12th game, but he was unable to convert. In the seven-point tiebreaker, Gelfand quickly built a 5-2 advantage. Cruz won the next two points but netted a backhand after a long rally and double faulted to hand Gelfand a 7-3 victory with players and coaches from both teams cheering their side on.
"I love those situations, I just have to block out everything else and keep my concentration," Gelfand said. "Usually against a player who isn't hitting it with pace you want to get to the net but my volleys were off today so I had to play more consistently and let him make the mistakes."
Samohi's No. 1 singles player Cristobal Rivera dropped one game in three sets while Gelfand took two out of three sets at the No. 2 spot. In the next round, Cruz again played a tiebreaker but this time he prevailed 7-2 against Vikings sophomore Brett Friedland. Kellogg Adams subbed in for Friedland in the last rotation but lost to the Aztecs' top player Pinoe Chu.
Before the match, Samohi Coach Wilston Poon had told his doubles teams that victory or defeat rested on their rackets. The Vikings' three tandems got the message, winning seven of nine sets. Leading the way was the No. 2 duo of Alex Smolentsev and Peter Harding, who swept 6-4, 6-1, 6-1. Seniors Zach Resnick and Will Wolf won two of their three sets at No. 1 and freshmen Leo Deconciliis and Cyrus Bry did the same at the No. 3 spot.
"Esperanza relies heavily on its doubles so for us to only lose two doubles sets isn't something that I envisioned," Poon said. "However, they had stronger singles than we thought and this team has risen to this occasion. They've started playing their best and we're peaking at the right time."
Chu won two of his three sets and Cyrus Moddares paired with Ryan Peterman to take two of three at No. 1 doubles for the sixth-seeded Aztecs, who suffered their first loss in 16 matches this season.
Despite the loss of highly-ranked singles players Conrad McKinnon and Connor Treacy to graduation, the Vikings haven't missed a beat this year and Gelfand, who played No. 1 doubles in Samo's finals loss last season, anticipates another hotly-contested title match.
"We remember how that felt and we're out to redeem ourselves," he said. "We had stronger singles last year, but I think overall we're a stronger, deeper team now and we really want to win CIF."