Girls tennis: Toppers outlast Scorpions, take 4A team championship

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By Mike Cote

ALBUQUERQUE — Bruce Cottrell asked a rhetorical question on the way to check on his No. 5 and No. 6 singles.

“Now you see why we’re scared of Farmington?”

Although the Hilltoppers had dominated the Farmington Scorpions in two meetings during the regular season, Cottrell always added the caveat that several of the matches between the two squads could’ve gone either way.

Saturday at the Jerry Cline Tennis Center, all six of the singles matches could’ve gone either way, but the most hotly disputed contests all went the way of the Los Alamos Hilltoppers.

In the girls state Class AAAA championship dual, the Hilltoppers came from behind in a pair of singles contests, then took the No. 3 doubles match to win 5-2 and take their second straight state title.

“It’s incredible,” Los Alamos No. 5 Elyse Jalbert, one of the heroes of the state title dual, said after Los Alamos iced the state title. “I’m really excited. It is incredible.”

Farmington won two singles contests in short order at No. 3 and No. 4, and the Scorpions — the third-seeded team going into the girls draw — were up a set in two other singles matches. At No. 6 singles, Farmington’s MacKenzie Pavlik, an eighth-grader, took the second set off Los Alamos’ Lauren Castro to make things even more interesting.

But Castro fought off Pavlik, keeping an array of low shots from the baseline going right at her opponent to take the third set 6-4.

Jeena Kim, Los Alamos’ No. 1, fell down a set to Kamy Blackwood, but dominated the second set to tie the contest.

In the third set, Blackwood held a 2-3 lead, but Kim held her next serve then broke Blackwood in five points, gaining a lead she would never relinquish.

At No. 5, Jalbert bounced back from a 6-4 loss in the first set against Lyndsey Frances, dropping just two more games in the next three sets.

Jalbert was mugged by her fellow teammates following the win, which gave Los Alamos a 4-2 lead in the team race and left it just a match away from victory.

“I was sad after the first set,” Jalbert said. “I really freaked out. The second set I decided to be really consistent. I even counted how many times I was hitting the ball.”

Jalbert and Frances engaged in several long rallies throughout the match, but Jalbert said in the final two sets the long rallies didn’t rattle her a bit.

The winning match would be harder to find than Los Alamos had hoped, however.

With all three doubles teams playing simultaneously on adjacent courts, the horizon looked dicey. Jeena and Grace Kim were down a set at No. 1 and Brenna O’Hara/Megan Townsley were down a set and a game at No. 2.

The No. 3 team of Emma Myers/Desta Shelley, however, was getting on a roll.

“We felt our third doubles was our strongest match-up,” Cottrell said. “We thought we had a chance at No. 2…but we wanted to win No. 3.”

Myers and Shelley said after the match they could tell Cottrell was counting on them to pull through. Cottrell made several trips to their court reminding them they were the only team that was leading and he needed them to pull out their contest.

Along with the extra incentive provided by Cottrell, Myers said the big wins beforehand were a big motivator for the team.

“It really had a lot to do with the singles that came through,” she said.

To get to the final, Los Alamos’ dual with St. Pius X was about as hairy as a 7-2 contest gets.

With Los Alamos up 3-1 in team play, the Hilltoppers’ top two singles, Jeena Kim and Grace Kim were locked in battle.

Grace Kim was in a knock-down, drag-out slugfest at the baseline with Sartan Molly Bachechi. Jeena Kim and St. Pius’ Caiti Lardner were butting heads at the net, but there was no ball involved.

Jeena Kim and Lardner were having it out over a dispute in the second set involving a pair of disputed line calls and even a heated argument over how many points had been played.

“I thought that it was 15-40, and she thought it was deuce, which is a big difference,” Kim said.

After nearly 10 minutes of debate, which eventually brought a New Mexico Activities Association line judge over to try to sort out, both players agreed to disagree — on every point that had been played in the game.

In prep tennis, players call their own sides of the court. In the state tournament, however, if a dispute arises, which it did in several matches Saturday, an official can be requested by either player to oversee play.

Starting over at 0-0, Kim went on to break Lardner’s serve, taking a 6-5 set lead. On Kim’s ensuing serve, Lardner had to scramble after several well placed line shots, and on the final point a weak lob return went wide, giving Kim a 6-3, 7-5 victory.

After the win, Kim said going and replaying 5-5 was nerve-wracking.

“I had to be consistent,” she said. “She’s really good at getting the ball back, whatever you hit. I had to be consistent and play aggressively.”

The win at No. 1 singles gave the Hilltoppers a 4-1 edge, but the Sartans would still be alive in the dual if it won at No. 2 singles.

At No. 2, Grace Kim struggled mightily in the first set, dropping that to Sartan Molly Bachechi, 2-6.

Kim, who had a less-than-ideal start to the tournament Friday, dropping her opening round match to Piedra Vista’s Ali Rhodes, said she needed to get her head back into the contest following the first set loss.

“During the first set, I was mentally broken down,” she said. “I was extremely nervous. It made my strokes turn out horribly. I couldn’t get anything over the net.”

Kim would get her form back in the second set, winning 6-2 and forcing a deciding set.

In the third set, Kim found herself down 4-3. When switching sides with Bachechi, Cottrell came over and informed her that if she was to pull off a comeback win, it would send the Hilltoppers to the finals regardless of the outcome of the three doubles matches.

Following that nugget of information, Kim wouldn’t drop another game, sweeping three straight, including a break of Bachechi in the final game, putting a cross-court forehand just inside the right sideline to win 6-4 and move Los Alamos into the title contest.

In the other singles, Los Alamos’ No. 3 O’Hara picked up her second lopsided victory of the tournament, knocking off Sara Rivera 6-1, 6-1. At No. 4, Townsley, who sat out Friday’s play to rest an injured leg, easily got by Emily Loufty, 6-1, 6-0 and Jalbert fought through a tough second set to sweep Taylor Stern 6-1, 6-4, sealing the win and the trip to the championship round.

Los Alamos started the tournament off very well, with a big 8-1 victory over the Piedra Vista Panthers, taking five of the six singles matches and sweeping the doubles matches, which it didn’t even need to secure the victory.

Townsley sat the team’s first dual, but Nos. 4-6 for the Hilltoppers, who were each playing up with her absence, filled in well. Chelsy Smith, Castro and Stephanie Koch each won in straight sets to help the Hilltoppers secure the win before the doubles matches.

Cottrell said he was happy to have been afforded the luxury of sitting Townsley, who appeared in her third AAAA state tournament, so his younger players could get in and lose the opening day jitters.

In all, the Hilltoppers used 11 different players in the three matches. Throughout the season, Los Alamos was thankful to have been blessed with the deepest squad in AAAA.

“That’s a great accomplishment,” Cottrell said. “They played impressively against St. Pius and Farmington.”

Just about the only thing that went wrong for Los Alamos at the AAAA tournament came after it was over.

“You can put this in the paper,” Cottrell said. “Brenna O’Hara broke the (first place) trophy.”