Mental matches: One singles player, four doubles teams from Weld qualify for state
May 4, 2017
Brooklynn Kelley wasn't letting this one slip away.
The Windsor sophomore dropped the first set of her No. 3 singles Class 4A Region 4 final to Thompson Valley's Lyndsey Bauer, putting Kelley on the brink of elimination.
A year ago, Kelley had all but secured a berth in the state tournament, only to lose it in a challenge match.
So, as the mid-afternoon sun beat down on Greeley's Centennial Courts, as Bauer pressed her lead, Kelley stilled her anxious nerves and told herself one thing over and over again.
"I can still do this."
After a taut second set and a breezy third, after Bauer's visible frustration mounted and then boiled over, Kelley did it.
She won her region and advanced to her first state tournament, one of five Weld players or teams to do so Thursday afternoon. Two pairs of her teammates — No. 4 doubles champions Natalie Talbot and Brooke Schrader, and No. 3 doubles third-placers Kiley Smith and Anna Lowndes — punched their tickets, too.
So did Greeley West's top two doubles teams of Hana Cropper and Delaynie McPhee and Alicia Cruz and Jana Sherif, who both won challenge matches to make the cut.
The five state qualifiers share one thing, besides the chance to cement their legacies on Colorado high school tennis' biggest stage — an extraordinary mental fortitude without which they'd have been hopeless.
Nowhere was this clearer than Kelley's comeback over Bauer, who took the first set of their match rather easily, 6-2. In the second set, though, Kelley stayed even, and Bauer seemed to take all of Kelley's good plays personally. Whenever Kelley scored a point, Bauer slammed her racket on the ground and yelled in exasperation. Kelley saw all of that as she won the second set 7-5 to force a decisive third.
"I just try to keep my composure," she said. "If I want to win I have to keep it together. Being frustrated isn't going to win."
Kelley may have exuded calm, but inside she was dying. She told herself positive things to keep her mind right and ignored the mounting fatigue in her body.
"It's all mental," Kelley said. "I can be as tired as possible but I tell myself I can keep going. 'One more point. One more point.'"
Bauer and Kelley split the first two games of the third set. But every Kelley point made Bauer angrier, and she started losing her grip on the match. Kelley hit a forehand that kissed the top of the net and dropped straight down to give her a 4-1 lead, then survived Bauer's rally in the next game to go up 5-1.
Bauer sprinted ahead 30-0 in the next game, but Kelley, as she had all match, came back. When Kelley took a 40-30 lead, Bauer smashed her racket on her foot and screamed, "Oh my gosh, I can't do this!"
She couldn't. She returned Kelley's next serve out of bounds, and that was that. Kelley had overcome last year's disappointment and accomplished the goal she set at the start of the season.
"It's amazing," she said. "I'm so excited. I'm jumping inside."
While Kelley staged her comeback, her teammates Talbot and Schrader made one of their own. In the first set of their No. 4 doubles final against Loveland's Alix Huhta and Aubrey Woodard, the freshmen found themselves down 4-1, with all indications that they'd need three sets to win the match. Schrader had other plans.
"I was really tired from the last match and didn't want to go to a third set," Schrader said.
The Wizards won the next seven games. They took the first set 6-4 and got out to a 2-0 lead in the second. Talbot and Schrader even fell behind 40-0 in the fourth game but came back to win with a short spike from Talbot that split Huhta and Woodard. The Wizards cruised through the rest of the set.
Thus the freshmen, who beat out a team of juniors to earn their varsity spot, who barely knew each other at the start of the season, who realized early on that Talbot's forehand and Schrader's backhand complemented each other perfectly, won a regional title and a berth at state far sooner than they'd dreamed.
"We really wanted it, so we just did it," Talbot said. "I didn't even think I would make varsity. I'm so surprised but I'm so glad."
The last final of the day, the No. 2 doubles tilt between Greeley West's Alicia Cruz and Jana Sherif and Thompson Valley's Abi Parsons and Lauren Davies, started late because Cruz had to take International Baccalaureate tests in the morning and early afternoon.
IB, for those who don't know, is perhaps the world's most rigorous high school academic program; unlike Advanced Placement classes, students don't choose which hard classes to take. They're thrown into college-level courses from the first day of their freshman year, have to complete a laundry list of extracurricular and charitable requirements to graduate, and that's underselling how tough it is. The final IB tests at the end of senior year are among the hardest tests the students will take.
Cruz took two Thursday, for math and English. They lasted two hours each. Then she drove to Centennial and joined Sherif on the court. Their opponents in the final were Thompson Valley's Abi Parsons and Lauren Davies, and the four of them played a marathon.
Cruz and Sherif won the first set 7-6 and lost the second 6-4. The third was interminable. Neither team took more than a one-game lead nor went ahead by more than two points in the tiebreaker until Parsons and Davies finished it off at 7-5. That gave the Spartans little time to regroup, because minutes later the challenge matches begun.
"It was rough," Cruz said.
In regional tennis, if the second- and third-place finishers didn't face each other in the bracket, they must play after the finals for the right to go to state. That's how Kelley lost her shot a year ago. Cruz and Sherif were pitted against another Weld team, Windsor's Sam Wiest and Aly Kerr. The Spartans brushed off their exhaustion and their opponents. Cruz and Sherif won rather easily, 6-4, 6-1, just as another Windsor team — the No. 3 doubles pair of Anna Lowndes and Kiley Smith — won their own challenge match against a pair from Thompson Valley.
"Getting the ball back in play is our number one mentality," Sherif said. "We got nothing to lose."
That left only one match. West's No. 1 doubles team of Hana Cropper and Delaynie McPhee had played the day's first final and lost in three sets. They watched their teammates all afternoon, tiring from sitting in the sun. Cropper and McPhee are juniors who've been a pair since their careers started as freshmen. They finished third in their region and missed out on state in each of the last two years.
This year, their hopes came down to one match against Loveland's Ava McQuade and Morgan MacDonald. The Loveland pair took a hard-fought first set, 6-3, before the Spartans battled back and took the second 6-4. By this point, the evening shadows stretched across the courts and the match had to be moved to one with lights.
Even though they were on the brink of elimination in the exact same place they'd faltered the last two years, Cropper and McPhee loved it. They wanted to play three sets. It showed. They exploded to a 4-1 lead, then 5-2. The Spartans took a 40-15 lead in the decisive game but let Loveland survive five match points before, finally, McPhee spiked one in the middle of the court that put the match to bed.
They embraced, then ran through a tunnel of their teammates on their way to joyfully reporting their score. For Cropper and McPhee, the third time was the charm.
"The thought that this is our year to go to state kept us going," Cropper said.
Class 4A Region 4 Finals
Singles — 1. Alex Djoumaliev, Loveland, def. Ashlen Mickleson, Thompson Valley, 6-2, 6-0; 2. Maddie Sheets, TVHS, def. Addie Woodard, LHS, 6-4, 6-3; 3. Brooklynn Kelley, Windsor, def. Lyndsey Bauer, TVHS, 2-6, 7-5, 6-1.
Doubles — 1. Katie Seja & Taleah Toso, TVHS, def. Hana Cropper & Delaynie McPhee, Greeley West, 6-3, 1-6, 6-1; 2. Abi Parsons & Lauren Davies, TVHS, def. Alicia Cruz & Jana Sherif, GWHS, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5); 3. Kira Badberg & Heather Price, LHS, def. Anna Lowndes & Kiley Smith, WHS, 6-3, 6-4; 4. Natalie Talbot & Brooke Schrader, WHS, def. Aubrey Woodard & Alix Huhta, LHS, 6-4, 6-1.
Doubles — 1. Cropper & McPhee, GWHS, def. Ava McQuade & Morgan MacDonald, LHS, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2; 2. Cruz & Sherif, GWHS, def. Sam Wiest & Aly Kerr, WHS, 6-4, 6-1; 3. Lowndes & Smith, WHS, def. Kaitlin Morris & Jordan Mertens, TVHS, 6-3, 6-0.