Return to state personal for No. 5 Wildcats

Photos by Brooke Stevens/The Herald
After edging Columbus North 3-2 in Saturday’s girls tennis semistate in Jasper, Wildcat players engulfed coach Scott Yarbrough in a group hug that included Yarbrough’s mother, Judy. The Wildcats clinched their first trip to the state finals since 2008 and first since Yarbrough’s father Ed, the former Wildcat coach, died two years ago. Jasper will face Indianapolis Cathedral in the state quarterfinals on Friday at Carmel. For a gallery of photos, click here.


By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor

JASPER — Years from now, when the Jasper girls tennis team gazes back at its semistate crown from 2012, the Wildcats should have an entire armful of snapshots to remember the day by. There were so many from which to choose.

It could be the vintage point from their No. 1 doubles team that finally cemented a 3-2 survival victory over Columbus North on Saturday at the Ed Yarbrough Tennis Complex. It could be the emotional response that followed from the Wildcat coach. Or it could be the stunning comeback earlier in the day from the Cats’ No. 2 doubles squad that made everything that followed possible.

Jasper secured its 11th trip to the state finals, which will begin Friday when the fifth-ranked Wildcats (19-2) battle No. 10 Indianapolis Cathedral (17-4) in the quarterfinals at Carmel High School. The first 10 finals journeys all came under former coach Ed Yarbrough, who died nearly two years ago after his final season coaching the JHS girls program. After the Cats clinched Saturday’s win, Ed’s successor, his son Scott, first went on court to comfort North’s No. 1 doubles players who were bent down and crying.

Scott then knelt down and melted into tears himself. His mother and Ed’s widow, Judy, walked over to pat him on the back as they shared the moment after the sort of intense match Ed would have relished.

“When Dad in his last few days couldn’t talk, I made some promises. And one of the promises was we would get these girls to state,” said Scott, whose Wildcats knocked off a Bull Dog team loaded with five seniors who played on North’s state runner-up team in 2010. “Sometimes you can’t keep all promises, but it worked out.”

Scott even got the sense that some sort of unseen force nudged  the Cats along, particularly in a stunning revival at No. 2 doubles, the likes of which he said “you’ll never see that again.”

Brie Kuntz and Brooke Lueken trailed by one set and 5-1 in the second-set tiebreaker, and their coach was ready to accept writing it off as a loss. He’s not sure what happened from there. Neither were Kuntz and Lueken, but they kept plucking point after point in the tiebreaker, pecking away to win the final six points.

“We just kept pulling out shots. As we got up those (last two tiebreaker points), it was like the best thing ever,” Lueken said. “This is definitely surprising and just awesome all around, because now we’re going to state.”

Stealing the second set altered the tenor of the match, as Theil and Rogers were in the midst of splitting sets at No. 1 doubles and MeKenzie Hilsmeyer was locked in another extended stare-down at No. 3 singles.  North standout Allie Smith pushed past Abby Rogers 6-0, 6-1, but Jasper’s Ali Schitter knotted the match score by dismissing Whitney Olibo 6-1, 6-2 at No. 2 singles.

Kuntz and Lueken needed a smidge of fortune to keep their match going; late in the tiebreak, Kuntz smacked a volley that was heading out, but it hit one of North’s players on the foot before it bounced, giving the point to Jasper. But otherwise, the Cats dictated their own turnaround — in particular Kuntz, who began putting away every shot within her radius from either the net or the baseline.

 

Even when they stepped off the court and into the air conditioning during the 10-minute break before the third set, Kuntz was itching to get back out into the 90-degree heat as soon as possible.

“We didn’t want to sit in there too long,” she said. “We wanted to go back out while we still had the adrenaline going, and just keep going and keep fighting.”

They did, bounding to a 4-1 lead in the third set before finishing off a 1-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 win over Julie Reece and Jaewon Jung. Reece and Jung hadn’t lost in their last 17 matches, and Jasper faced a similar challenge on the adjacent court at No. 1 doubles, against Bull Dog pair Rachael Miller and Melissa Sanders, the Bull Dog pair that had netted 19 consecutive wins.

Theil and Rogers dropped the middle set 6-1 and trailed by a break at 3-2 midway through the second set. But they broke back on serve for a 4-3 edge, and later needing another service break to finish off the match at 5-4, Theil and Rogers kept their nerve and kept the ball in play while Sanders and Miller started to miss.
But the Cats fully earned the final point.

Theil unloaded on a backhand return that nuzzled the far sideline. Miller retrieved it, but popped it up to Rogers, who pelted an overhead to the opposite corner. Had the match been played on a clay court, both shots would have kicked up chalk.

At first, Theil and Rogers both froze, unsure of whether they could begin celebrating.

“I didn’t know if it was in or not,” Rogers said. “I definitely wanted to earn the last point, not have it be like a double fault or something.”

The Bull Dogs called the ball good. Then, jubilation as Rogers and Theil wrapped one another in a hug.

“Amazing. I don’t even know how to explain it,” Theil said. “We just knew how to be aggressive, get our shots (in bouncing back from the second-set loss). That last game was . . . I’m speechless, I don’t even know what to say about it.”

Jasper needed both doubles rallies, since Rosemary Yonushonis rallied from 5-3 down in the second set to edge Hilsmeyer 4-6, 7-5, 6-2.

Jasper’s Ashley Rogers cracked a forehand as she and No. 1 doubles partner Elizabeth Theil endured for a 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 win against Columbus North duo Melissa Sanders and Rachael Miller, who had won 19 consecutive matches. For a gallery of more photos, log on to DuboisCountyHerald.com.


But by that point, the other Wildcats had already dried their eyes from the tearful celebration. Yarbrough squeezed as many players as he could in a group hug with Judy. And Theil, who played in the individual doubles finals a year ago, began thinking about how much fun a group trip will be this time.

“It’s so much better going up with the team,” Theil said. “I can’t wait.”

“It’s very exciting to be able to go to state my senior year,” Kuntz added. “It’s what I’ve been working for ever since I started playing tennis.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.




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