CULVER — The past two years, Plymouth’s girls tennis team has beaten arch-rival Warsaw in Northern Lakes Conference play only to come up empty-handed when the two teams crossed paths again in the regional finals. On Wednesday, the Lady Pilgrims enthusiastically returned the favor.
Plymouth reprised a 3-2 regular-season defeat with a convincing, 4-1 win of the defending-champion Tigers for the Culver Girls Academy Regional title. Their seventh all-time regional title in tow, the Pilgrims now advance to face IHSTeCA No. 10-ranked South Bend St. Joseph at Saturday’s CGA Semistate, while top-ranked Carmel and seventh-rated Munster play on the other side of the Gable Tennis Complex.
But first, they celebrate.
“We’ve been so close the last two years, and Warsaw has kind of turned around the regular-season result on us in the regional. That’s been tough, but they came out and won it and I felt like it was maybe our time to do it right back,” said Plymouth coach Brad Haeck. “We’ve got a group of kids that kind of just walk on the court determined. It’s awesome. It was fun to watch.”
“If you lose to a better team, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, and tonight Plymouth was that better team. I tell the girls that, and I mean it in all sincerity,” said Warsaw coach Rick Orban.
In the two teams’ first meeting a little over a month ago, it was Warsaw that came out on top via a sweep of the three singles matches and eventual 3-2 decision. The rematch went as scripted on the two doubles courts Wednesday, as McKenzie Scheetz and Leah Smith handed Taylor Shoaf and Rachel Boyle a quick, 6-1, 6-1, loss, and Mary Beatty and Audie Plothow defeated Rachel Yeager and Raegan Merchant, 6-4, 6-1 to put the Pilgrims up two match points to none roughly an hour into the meet. But what happened from there was somewhat surprising.
Trailing 3-0 to Alyssa Zellers in the first set of at 3 singles, Miranda German reeled off wins in six of the next seven games to claim the first set, 6-4. She then cruised to a 6-1 win in the second set to clinch her team the title with the 1 and 2 singles matches still underway. Although Zellers had gotten the better of German in their first meeting back in April, Wednesday’s 3 singles outcome was forecasted by German’s straight-set win over Zellers in the finals of the NLC Tournament two weeks ago. The regional final win represented a much more convincing victory, however, and in a high-pressure environment where most eyes were on the 3 singles court, expecting the final team outcome to hinge on the match there.
“As a coach you’re always nervous a little bit wondering how the kids are going to respond, but she kind of had that determined mentality when she played Alyssa in that conference tournament final match,” explained Haeck. “I just tried to settle her down. She can get worked up because she’s just so competitive. She’s just darned competitive, and she just kind of regrouped and settled down and got some more balls in play and used her athleticism.”
But a more surprising outcome came at 1 singles Wednesday.
Having lost not once but twice to Warsaw No. 1 Liza Lewis already this season, Cortni Cook looked like the better player in the first set on the way to a 6-2 win. Lewis regrouped for a 6-3 win in the second set to split with Cook, but her tenacious play visibly frustrated Lewis in the third, and her 6-4 win there put the exclamation point on the Plymouth championship.
“Cortni is a competitor, too. She hits the ball a lot of unorthodox ways and not how you necessarily would teach it when you first learn the fundamentals, but she makes it work and she frustrates people. She did that to Liza as well,” said Haeck.
“Liza made a lot of uncharacteristic errors, but to Cortni’s credit, she hustled down a ball and made her hit another ball, made her hit two or three shots instead of just one.”
“Plymouth always comes ready to play, and I talked to the girls about that and, honestly, we just didn’t,” said Orban. “Our doubles were flat. Liza, as great a career as she’s had, she lost that first set, and the nerves took over. Alyssa, a sophomore, nerves got to her.
“Brad’s program really played well tonight.”
The Tigers’ only point was supplied by Ella Knight at 2 singles. Trailing Kyla Heckaman 4-3 in the first set, Knight rallied to an eventual 7-5 win but dropped the first game to Heckaman at the start of the second. With the championship already out of reach, the Kalamazoo College commit won the next six straight, preventing a shutout in her final outing wearing a Warsaw uniform.
“That’s Ella. She’s been the ultimate team player,” said Orban. “She wants to win a match because it helps the team. She’s going to be sorely missed — her attitude, the way she plays, the way she leads the team, the pride. She knew it was 4-0, and she wanted to make it 4-1. Because on the way back she’ll talk to the team, she’ll talk about next year to some of the kids, and she’ll say ‘They didn’t blank us.’
“She’s a special kid, that’s all I can say.”
A win short of a regional three-peat, Warsaw closes its 18th-straight sectional championship season with a record of 14-4, and the Tigers have big sneakers to fill at the top of the lineup with the departure of seniors Knight and Lewis.
“To win three of these regionals in a row, I think the last team to do it was Culver, and then it goes back a long time. My first five years we won the regional straight, and I don’t think that’s been done since. This regional is tough. You’ve got Plymouth, you’ve got Culver, you’ve got us, and it’s every year,” said Orban.
“Liza is going to be tough to replace. Ella is going to be almost impossible to replace. There are some young kids, they’ve been here, they’ve been watching, and I bring them here for a reason. We’ve already talked about stepping up their games this summer, this winter, playing in some tournaments and getting a lot mentally tougher.”