Cats’ bonds stick until last points, and beyond

Herald File Photo
Jasper’s Kathleen Messmer, who returned a volley in a match earlier this season, was one of three Wildcat seniors who wrapped up their careers Friday in a 3-2 defeat to South Bend St. Joseph in the quarterfinal round of the girls tennis state finals at Carmel. The senior trio of Messmer, Jillian Seger and Mallory Ahlbrand helped the Wildcats reach the state finals for a third straight year and for the 14th time overall.


CARMEL — As part of her radio and TV production class, Kathleen Messmer was assigned to produce a documentary near the end of her senior year and chose the Jasper tennis program as her topic. If Messmer had been able to film it a little later, some of the parting shots from the curtain drop on Jasper’s postseason tennis run would’ve aligned squarely with some of the documentary’s talking points.

Playing together; playing as a family. It applies to wins and losses alike, and the No. 9 Wildcats absorbed the latter in their 3-2 setback to seventh-ranked South Bend St. Joseph in the quarterfinal stage of the state finals Friday at Carmel High School. With Messmer and Jillian Seger trailing 6-1, 5-2 and a defeat in their No. 2 doubles match almost a foregone conclusion, Messmer sensed her partner’s disappointment as she placed her hands over her head. So the two hugged it out right there on the court, before the match was even over.

“I just went back and I said, ‘Jillian, look at me, you got this, you’re OK,’ and she just gave me a big hug. Because we knew it was probably over, so we just wanted to make it count,” Messmer said.

“It’s kind of like an unspoken rule, and it just shows how close we all are in the fact that no matter win or lose, we’re just out there to support one another, and we’re always there for hugs when you need it, whether we won or we lost,” Messmer added. “Just for that shoulder to cry on or for someone to squeeze out of celebration, but definitely win or lose, we’re always there for each other.”

Jasper No. 1 singles player Sarah Monesmith couldn’t fight the tears but pinballed in and out of hugs and embraces and pats on the back from Wildcat supporters after her 6-3, 6-2 loss to once-beaten Maddie Yergler, which gave St. Joe (24-1) its clinching point. Caroline Theil didn’t win her match individually, either, but she was the first one leading the way on court to congratulate and console teammate Mallory Ahlbrand for her bittersweet 6-2, 6-0 No. 3 singles victory — a win individually for the senior, though as Friday’s final match to finish, Ahlbrand played it out knowing it was her last.

“It was cool whenever I came over to the fence and they were all there,” Ahlbrand said of being greeted by the stream of teammates after her match. “I know everyone came out and worked their hardest today. It didn’t go our way, but overall it’s nice to see when the team loses, everyone still came out and keeps in mind that team’s the most important thing. Got a lot of good teammates on here. I think one thing that sets Jasper apart from a lot of other teams is we play more for the team than the individual. A lot of the other teams are kind of out for themselves, and it’s cool that we all have a team feeling.”

The Cats (17-5) simply encountered too much horsepower at three positions in a match where commanding scorelines were the rule of the day.

Suchi Bandaru plowed through a 6-1, 6-2 verdict at No. 2 singles in joining Ahlbrand as Jasper’s other winner. Jasper coach Scott Yarbrough applauded Monesmith’s fight and ball-striking even in the setback to Yergler, a good friend of Monesmith’s from the summer tennis circuit as the two shared an extended hug at the net at the finish. And St. Joe’s different style of doubles won out, with the Indians staying back and blasting away from the baseline, as “it was a little different having the power come at us,” Messmer acknowledged. To Yarbrough, both doubles matches were reminiscent of a soccer game where the ball’s on your defensive end the whole time, as momentum was tough to corner. Talle Corrigan and Kayla Graham pulled past Olivia Yarbrough and Caroline Theil 6-3, 6-0 at No. 1 as the Indians’ two undefeated doubles teams ceded just three games in both victories.

The end of the line for Jasper prompted a senior salute to the trio that accepted and excelled in the depth positions at No. 3 singles at No. 2 doubles. A few years ago, Seger and Ahlbrand were both in contention for the 3 singles post, and while Seger altered course and focused on doubles and anchored the second doubles team for the last two years, Ahlbrand stuck with singles and led Jasper with 49 wins over the last two seasons.

“Can’t say enough about Jillian and Mallory, and then Kathleen, perfect example of a girl who’s waited, worked hard, been a supportive part of the team, and when it was her turn, she stepped in and played well. Big part of the semistate weekend, I thought she played so well last weekend and just a neat way to send the seniors out,” Yarbrough said. “Special girls. Really cool girls.”

The sentiment boomeranged back Yarbrough’s way, too.

“Just playing for Coach Yarbrough, it’s awesome. He’s a great coach, and he makes you want to be your best, and it’s definitely going to be sad not playing for him anymore,” a choked-up Ahlbrand replied about the best thing about playing for Jasper tennis. “If you’re up in your match or you’re down, knowing that he’s going to be there to coach you and reassure you. I just think the family feeling of our team overall, everyone’s so close, and we just know that we’re all there for each other. There’s truly just nothing like it. It’s awesome.”

The family affair doesn’t cease, even with the Seger Era complete. With Jillian graduating, she’s the last of 24 tennis-playing cousins. That ends a stretch of 24 straight years with at least one Seger kid on the boys or girls team ... until the next generation of the grandkids arrives in a few years.

The cycle might then circle back to what this year’s outgoing bunch of seniors has discovered.

“It’s more than just tennis, and more than just a sport. It’s about our family and the tradition behind it, and I just really wanted to give back to the program what it’s given to me,” Messmer said of making her documentary, as the assignment was to make a video of five or six minutes but hers ran nearly 13 1⁄2 minutes. “I’ve just mainly learned how to push myself, mentally and physically. When you’re down in a match, just staying in it, and all the running we do at practice, and also just the family dynamic of the program has taught me so much on how to just treat people and be there for one another. It’s just been such a blessing in my life, because you see people who played tennis 10 years ago come back, and they’re still part of the Jasper tennis family. It’s just awesome to be part of something that treats you as more than just a player.”

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