Nick Vanden shook his head Thursday while walking to a stray tennis ball, after his opponent earned yet another point: “This is ridiculous,” he muttered.
The State College junior found himself trailing by three games in the District 6 boys’ tennis singles championship — but he exhaled deeply, tried to put his frustration aside and then bounced back in a big way. Vanden ended up claiming his second straight District 6 singles gold medal on Thursday afternoon after relaxing and rallying to beat his opponent, and fellow Little Lions teammate, Matt Wherley by a score of 7-6 (4), 6-0.
It was the third time in six years that two Little Lions played one another in the district singles championship.
“Personally, this feels a lot better this year than last year,” Vanden said from the State College tennis courts. “I’m just such a different player now. And (Matt) is definitely one of the best competitors I could ever play in districts, so winning this just means more for me.”
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The two embraced at the net after the match, and their moms walked on to the court shortly afterward for pictures. But, early on, it looked as if the two players’ roles could have been reversed.
Wherley, the eventual runner-up, raced out to a 3-0 lead in the first set — and Vanden just couldn’t find an answer. Not for a while, anyway. Between games, he’d just shake his head and say aloud, “Why is that floating? I put so much spin on that” or, more succinctly, “This is frustrating.”
But, as Wherley became more fatigued, Vanden found his resolve. He felt a little tight in the shoulders, tried to loosen up and clear his head — and the tide slowly started to turn. Suddenly, Vanden wasn’t making nearly as many unforced errors. And he was answering Wherley’s top shots with his own.
During one memorable volley, the crowd rose and clapped after Wherley overpursued a ball but survived by smacking it between his legs — “That was a sick shot,” Wherley said afterward with a laugh — to keep the volley going. Undeterred, Vanden saw an opportunity when the ball hung in the air. He swung his racket so hard that the lime-green ball hit the blue court on Wherley’s side, giving Vanden the point, and then bounced over the fence. A spectator was forced to retrieve the home-run hit.
“Obviously, I would have liked to win,” Wherley said. “But he’s a great teammate. “The last two years, we’ve been at the top of things. He’s been good when he’s below me and great when he’s above me.”
The district championship didn’t take on a tournament feel at first. Thirty minutes before the match’s start, the two traded chatter about school and tennis while they knocked the tennis ball back and forth. They laughed and smiled while their coach played on a neighboring court. But as the start time drew near, that conversation dried up. The two barely exchanged a word.
“We had to get in our zone and focus,” added Vanden, who said the two have played about 10 tournament matches against one another since the third grade. “A match is a match, no matter how much of friends you are.”
Wherley led 6-5 in the first set, but Vanden took over after that. Once Vanden claimed the first set, the second one was a breeze. Any frustration was clearly gone. When one car started blaring AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, Vanden turned toward the bleachers, raised his arms and hummed a few bars. “I love that song,” he said.
Said State College coach Jane Borden: “Nick can be a slow starter but, once he settles in, he’s fine. He can overpower people. He’s a first-strike player and, once he gets rolling, it’s hard to shift the momentum back.”
Next up for the Little Lions are the District 6 doubles championships, followed by the district team championships and then the state tournaments. Borden was sure to remind both Vanden and Wherley of that fact while she draped the medals around their necks Thursday afternoon.
“I do want to congratulate you both on great seasons,” she said. “But you’re not done yet.”