The No. 1-ranked team in the state found itself on the ropes like it hadn’t been at any time all season on Tuesday afternoon.
The third showdown of the 2016 tennis season between top-ranked Mount Airy and No. 3 Bishop McGuinness ultimately ended up like the first one three months earlier, with the Lady Bears pulling out a razor-thin 5-4 victory.
Only someone who was there would know just how close the Lady Bears came to defeat at the hands of the two-time defending 1A state champions.
The Villains (14-5) played inspired tennis and swept the Nos. 1-3 singles matches while the other three were still on the court. Bishop’s formidable No. 1, Becky Auger, rolled to a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Bailey Jackson, and the No. 2 wasn’t much closer, with Marion Sloyan downing Elizabeth Marion 6-2, 6-4. At No. 3, the Lady Bears’ Logan King put up a fight, but ultimately succumbed 6-4, 6-3 to Claire Rogers.
That left Bishop two wins away from a victory, and the Villains had every chance to put Mount Airy away without the doubles matches even having to be played.
The Lady Bears (24-1), who have been exceptionally strong at the bottom of their lineup all season, have often relied on Maya Hicks, Lisa Omuro and Elizabeth Bray to do their thing and win the Nos. 4-6 singles. The trio have been Mount Airy’s ticket to victory on numerous occasions this season. However, the Villains don’t have any soft touches at the bottom of their lineup, either, and sweeping the bottom of the order is far from guaranteed against them.
Mount Airy finally got on the board after an arduous win for Hicks at No. 4 singles over Lydia Cortes. Cortes clobbered Hicks 6-2 in the first set, and at the time, Bishop led in four of the six singles matches, something that Lady Bear coach Rodney Pell knew his team likely could not overcome in the doubles. However, Hicks refused to fold, and won the first three games of set two before Cortes climbed back into the match and twice got to within a game. With a large contingent of players and fans from each side looking on, Hicks held on to win the set and force a match tiebreaker. The players battled to a 7-7 draw before Hicks won the last three points and prevailed 2-6, 6-4, (10-7).
At No. 6, Bray rallied from 2-3 down in the first set against Candyce Sturgeon, but then lost serve early in the second and trailed 3-0 before finally finding her form again. The last several games of the match were a grind where neither player refused to back down. Bray eventually got her break back, then won two more and lost another as the players made numerous long rallies. Bray finally won the last game for a 6-4, 7-5 victory. The Lady Bears were now within 3-2.
The No. 5 singles was the highest drama of all. If Mount Airy does something special this season, a lot of the thanks should go to Lisa Omuro, who won what might be the match of the year for the Lady Bears.
Omuro had been beaten twice this season by her Bishop counterpart, Kennedy Barber, but was well aware she had to win this one or her team’s season was all but over. Both of the first two meetings had been close, with Omuro losing a match tiebreaker in the last meeting on Sept. 22. On Tuesday, she lost two of the first three games, won four in a row, then held on for a 6-4 win in the first set. In set two, she battled her way to a 5-5 tie after 10 games, then got a service break for 6-5, but Barber broke back for 6-6 and forced a set tiebreaker. Omuro won the first two points of the tiebreaker but then lost seven of eight to drop the set.
The high-action match had drained both players, and they took a lengthy break before contesting the match tiebreaker, where the rules are first to 10 points, and win by two.
The tiebreaker was just like the match had been, neither backing down from the other. Omuro double-faulted on the opening point, but then won the next two on Barber’s serve. From there, they traded back and forth before Barber won two in a row and forced Omuro to play from behind. The Bishop senior served for the match at 10-9, 11-10 and 12-11. On one of those points, Omuro scooped a ball literally an inch off the concrete to save the match. On another, Omuro hit a long ball just inside the back line that no one but Barber and a few spectators could see was a good shot. In an act of good sportsmanship noted by those few who witnessed it, Barber immediately called it good and the two played on. Finally, at 12-12, Omuro got a winner and led for the first time since 6-5. She won the next one as well, and won the match 6-4, 6-7 (3-7), (14-12).
The exhausted senior walked off the court to hugs and congratulations to her teammates and admonishments to save her energy. She would need it in the doubles.
Jackson and Marion avenged their singles defeats in the No. 1 doubles match, in which Auger and Rogers led 3-2 before the Lady Bears’ tandem won four straight games to take the lead. From there, they simply held serve and won 10-5, giving their team the lead, 4-3.
However, Pell knew that Bishop’s No. 2 doubles team of Sloyan and Cortes matched up well stylistically against his No. 2’s, King and Bray, and the same prevailed here. With a hotly contested No. 3 doubles still going on, Sloyan and Cortes built a 9-2 lead and held on to win 10-5. The Lady Bears’ No. 1 ranking and Bishop’s defense of back-to-back state titles came down to the No. 3 doubles match. Hicks and Omuro had taken an early 2-1 lead on Barber and Sturgeon but then lost a break and trailed 2-3. That seemed to wake them up, and they stormed to five wins in six games to lead 7-4. At 9-6 and serving for the match, they lost serve a second time, and then Barber and Sturgeon fought back to close the match to 9-8. Finally, Hicks and Omuro held serve and the match was won, for both them and for their team.
To reach the West Regional final, the Lady Bears will have to beat their other great Northwest 1A Conference rival. East Surry defeated Pine Lake Prep 5-1 in the the other quadrant of the draw, and the Lady Cardinals (18-3) will travel to Mount Airy on Thursday for a 4:30 p.m. showdown.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.