It was only fitting Saturday afternoon that seniors Emma Bilyeu and Mallory Metheny would be deciding the Jasper Semistate high school tennis match between Terre Haute South and Evansville Memorial.
Not only were the members of the Braves’ No. 1 doubles team bearing the weight of their team’s advancement — or not — to the state finals on their shoulders, their own seasons were on the line in the individual doubles tournament. And their own play — characterized more by grit and determination and perseverance than by flawless execution — had typified their team’s showing all morning.
“It takes three [points] to win it,” coach Bill Blankenbaker said, after Bilyeu and Metheny had polished off their Memorial rivals 6-2 in that third set to win the match, “and it was nice to have Mal and Em out there for that last match.”
“This may have been the first time we’ve had the court like this, with all eyes on us,” said Metheny after the win, indicating she and Bilyeu didn’t really mind the attention.
“By that time, we’re not focused on other [teammates’] matches,” added Bilyeu. “We don’t normally need the crowd, but you’ve got to love ‘em.”
The third set was easy by comparison for the South duo, who have lost just once all season and not at all in postseason play, perhaps because for a change they took an early lead.
After having leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 at the first three changeovers of the first set, Bilyeu and Metheny lost three of four games to fall behind. They won the 12th game to set up the tiebreaker, however, and dominated it by winning the first four points on their way to a 7-2 decision.
In the second set, Bilyeu and Metheny fell behind 4-1. They crept back within 5-4, then won two games in a row — taking a 6-5 lead in an 11th game that went to deuce three times — only to give up four quick points in a row to drop the 12th game. Memorial’s team of Anne Mogavero and Elizabeth Wilm won the tiebreaker 8-6, getting four of its last five points.
By that time the crowd was forming. Memorial had taken a 1-0 lead when Macie Elliott defeated South’s Eesha Purohit in straight sets in a little over an hour; the Braves had won the next two points — Jacqualynn Bogle and Lexi Summers at No. 2 doubles at the 90-minute mark, Maddie Kesler at No. 3 singles less than five minutes later; and Memorial forged the 2-2 tie when Rachel Swartwood outlasted South’s Taylor Bullock at No. 2 singles even though Bullock had won a 6-0 second set.
Bogle and Summers, not used to being so quick off the court, proved to be unsung heroes for their team Saturday. On a day in which three of the five matches were back-and-forth, see-saw affairs, their domination had to do wonders for their team’s morale. In the regular-season match between the two that was shortened by rain with no decision, the Bogle-Summers team had been down a set.
“I feel like we played really well,” Summers said after Saturday’s match.
“We had to focus on every point,” added Bogle. “[The Tigers] had a new player since we played them … we picked on weaknesses we thought we could attack.”
The early finish turned Summers and Bogle into cheerleaders for their teammates, a role they haven’t played often — at least this year.
“I’ve been the alternate [player for postseason matches] for three years now,” said Bogle. “I really would rather play.”
At the same time, they said, they could identify with Bilyeu and Metheny in the latter stages of the match. “We know what it’s like to go three [sets] with everybody counting on you,” said Summers.
Usually South’s first cheerleader is Kesler, who likes nothing better than to finish her match in a hurry. And against Memorial’s Brenna Wu on Saturday, that strategy worked for awhile — Kesler’s 6-1 decision was the first set to be completed.
Wu was using every trick she knew to slow the pace of the match, however, and won two straight games early in the second set to set up leads of 3-2, 4-3 and 5-4 at changeovers. At 5-4, 40-15 Wu was serving with two set points in hand.
“She really played well,” Kesler said of Wu afterward. “Even in the first set, all the games were close — but I knew I didn’t want to go into three [sets]. I knew for the sake of my team I needed to get off the court.”
Kesler fought off those match points in the 10th game of the second set, then won it and the next two to win her match. From a nutritional standpoint, it was a good thing she did, she added.
“I’d already pulled out the Mountain Dew,” Kesler said. “By the third set, I’d have been crashing.”
The resilience of his players — across the board — was one of the things Blankenbaker liked best, he said after the match.
“They all played great,” the coach said. “They just never gave up; every game they fought back.”
The No. 2 singles match that tied the team score was in the books well before the second set at No. 1 doubles was finished. But after Mogavero and Wilm kept themselves and their team alive by winning that tiebreaker, South’s four-year doubles teammates gave themselves a pep talk.
“We were saying when we were sitting down [before the third set], ‘We have to get on top early,’ ” Metheny said later.
“Just relax, play like we know how, and get up early,” Bilyeu agreed.
“We know what we’re capable of,” said Metheny.
South took a 1-0 lead in that third set with a service break, only to have the Tigers break back. Bilyeu and Metheny were back ahead 2-1 on a third straight service break, this one completed by back-to-back double faults, and then took what might have been their first two-game lead of the entire match when Metheny held service at love.
The Memorial duo was proving to be less adept at playing from behind than it had been with a lead, and South got another service break for a 4-1 lead. The Braves squandered some of that advantage by losing the next game, but came back from love-30 for a fourth consecutive service break and a 5-2 lead before Metheny served out the match in a set that lasted less than a half hour.
South’s victory was almost one-sided compared to the other match Saturday morning between 10th-ranked Columbus North and ninth-ranked Floyd Central. It also came down to a 2-2 tie and a three-set match, this at No. 1 singles between senior Caroline Hedrick of Columbus — usually an automatic point for the Bull Dogs after placing second, first and second in state singles tournaments in her first three seasons — and freshman Olivia Boesing of the Highlanders. With a 6-3 lead in the third-set tiebreaker, Boesing had three match points, only to lose 9-7 — the point that put Hedrick ahead 8-7 coming on a delay-of-match penalty when Boesing went down with cramps, both players having used up their allotted injury time earlier in the match.
Yes, it was a good day not to have to return for a second match.
South’s victory sets up a Friday afternoon match for the 18-0 Braves against sixth-ranked Highland, also unbeaten, in the first round of the new eight-team state finals.
“OK, we’re going back,” Blankenbaker said. “There’s nothing better [than playing in the state finals] … I’m happy for the team.”
Terre Haute South 3, Evansville Memorial 2
Singles — Macie Elliott (EM) def. Eesha Purohit 6-2, 6-0; Rachel Swartwood (EM) def. Taylor Bullock 6-4, 0-6, 6-3; Maddie Kesler (THS) def. Brenna Wu 6-1, 7-5.
Doubles — Emma Bilyeu-Mallory Metheny (THS) def. Anne Mogavero-Elizabeth Wilm 7-6 (7-2), 6-7 (6-8), 6-2; Jacqualynn Bogle-Lexi Summers (THS) def. Claire Church-Alexa Cox 6-3, 6-2.
Next — South (18-0) plays Highland at 3 p.m. Friday in the state finals at Park Tudor. Evansville Memorial finished 13-1.