WARSAW — Tennis may be physically demanding, but it’s largely a mental game. And Warsaw’s team seems to have that part of the sport down pat.
The Lady Tigers played like they owned the courts at Thursday’s Warsaw Sectional semifinals. Which they do.
Not only were they playing on their home courts, but the hosts are playing for a 19th straight sectional title. And while the Tigers only edged out Wawasee by a narrow, 3-2 decision during regular-season play less than a month ago, Thursday’s sectional win was a much more decisive, 4-1 affair.
“One of the differences is, this is our 19th possible straight sectional. We talked about it yesterday at practice; we’ve been talking about it for a couple weeks now,” said Warsaw head coach Rick Orban. “We own the sectional, and that’s what these kids feel, so they’re extremely confident coming into here. To beat us, you’ve got to take it away from us, and you’ve got to hope you can beat us, so there’s a big difference in the mindset out on the court. When you’re that confident, you just believe, and your strokes are a little bit better, you go for a little bit more. You saw a little bit more excitement out there tonight, something we haven’t really showed all season. So I’m thrilled with them.”
“It’s a disappointing end for sure, but Warsaw is a really good team and we come up against it every year. I think there’s a little bit of that in the back of your mind as your coming up that they’ve won so many times,” echoed Wawasee coach Lynnette Jackson. “It’s just something that you think about so I think it adds to the hurdle of beating a good team already.”
One difference from the two teams’ regular-season meeting back on April 24 was a personnel change at 2 singles.
Taylor Shoaf had been injured in that initial match and sat out the meet, only to face off against Wawasee’s Peyton Rookstool in last week’s Northern Lakes Conference Tournament. Rookstool took that match in straight sets but only after Schoaf rolled her ankle early in the first set, but on Thursday she was at 100 percent. Schoaf cruised through Rookstool 0-0 to give Warsaw its first match point of the night.
“The last match, our 2 singles and 3 singles both got beat and got beaten pretty convincingly. Taylor didn’t play during the regular season, and she was disappointed with that,” recalled Orban. “Then at the conference championships, the first set she rolled her ankle so she really couldn’t play, but the advantage was we got to see Wawasee’s 2 singles player play twice. Jan and I watched really close. We definitely had a plan, and Taylor followed that to the T and just dominated tonight. I’m just thrilled with her play.”
Alyssa Zellers handed Wawasee No. 1 Kendra Doerr a 6-0, 6-2 loss at No. 1 for Warsaw’s second point less than 10 minutes later, and the Tigers’ 2 doubles team of Amy Herendeen and Maddie Ray clinched their team the match with a 6-0, 6-3 defeat of Abby Morehead and Tate Cowan not long after that.
Raegan Merchant and Rachel Yeager came on strong in the second set to beat Mooly Jones and Kaitlin Graber, 6-4, 6-2 at the other doubles position, while Elizabeth Kleopfer spoiled the shutou with a 6-4, 6-1 defeat of Rachel Boyle at 3 singles.
“I think the difference is just being able to minimize unforced errors. They’re a really good team, Warsaw is, and they don’t make the errors,” explained Jackson. “When the rallies keep going, we’re the ones that are usually putting the ball out first. So that’s the one thing we’ve really got to clean up. We’ve got good shots. We have to be able to keep those rallies going. That’s why Elizabeth does so well on 3, because she makes very few unforced errors.”
Thursday’s other semifinal between Tippecanoe Valley and Columbia City was nip-tuck throughout, but the Eagles claimed the deciding third point via three-setter at 1 doubles to advance opposite Warsaw to Friday’s final.
Jette Honnens put away Mackenzie Costello, 6-0, 6-1 at 1 singles, and Grace Cotter beat Hannah Parson, 6-1, 6-3 at 2 singles to give City its two points, while Hannah Engstrand topped Madison Miner 6-1, 6-1 at 3 singles, and Kaitlin Neese and Haley Bakjer combined for a 6-2, 6-1 win over Grace Newton and Gracelynn Martinez to knot the semifinal at two points apiece.
Hailey Cearbaugh and Addison Bishop handed Makenna Bradley and Tiphanie Hodge a 6-3 defeat in the first set before the Valley 1 doubs tandem came roaring back with a 6-4 win in the second set, but Cearbaugh and Bishop ultimately hung on for a 6-4 win in the third set to eliminate the Lady Vikings.
“Really, that would be the group that we would think in a deciding match for the winner we would feel most comfortable. They were 15-1 during the regular season, but they were just off a little bit tonight,” said Valley coach Andrew Luce of his 1 doubs team. “Columbia City has a great team, and it went their way tonight.”
While Warsaw and City advance to Friday’s finals, to be played at 4:30 p.m. — either at the high school weather-permitting or at the nearby Warsaw Racquet Club if it rains — both Valley and Wawasee bow out of the season.
The Vikings expect everyone back next year except Hodge and Bradley and hope to build on their 8-9 finish.
“Our top six players coming back will be juniors next year, so we’re young. We lose Tiphanie and Makenna, our 1 doubles team, but everybody else is back next year. I’m very excited, as well as the team is, for the future. I think our future is very bright,” said Luce.
The Warriors must bid goodbye to three of their top seven in Doerr, Rookstool and Graber, but their finish was one to build on after a tumultuous season that saw coach suddenly Shane Staley resign midseason and Jackson take the helm.
“It was a good season and a good end to the season even with the loss tonight. I think it really bodes well for next season even though we’re losing a few people,” Jackson said. “I think the improvement that we saw will really carry over for next season. I think the coaching change will work well for us next year too, having Staley really focusing on his academy and teaching the players. I think that will free us up to have a team that’s cohesive out here.”