State College junior Fernando del Castillo had a decision to make Wednesday — and his response might’ve determined whether the Little Lions came away with the District 6 team title.
Del Castillo shifted his weight from one foot to another, after finding himself trailing by three games in the second set. He wasn’t sure of his next move, but del Castillo said after toweling off sweat from his forehead that he chose to remain positive. He focused on one point after another, as he rallied for the match win — sealing the Little Lions’ 3-1 victory over Hollidaysburg in the District 6 Class 3A boys’ tennis team championship.
“This is just a great feeling,” del Castillo said, standing on his home court with a medal draped around his neck. “Making a comeback is one of the greatest feelings in tennis.”
Del Castillo clinched the championship when his opponent, Anthony Menard, couldn’t reach a return that the Little Lion dropped perfectly in the corner of the blue court. Hollidaysburg coach Brian Denis approached State College’s coach and immediately extended his hand, offering congratulations and telling her, “You have a great team; proud of you guys” before patting an exhausted Menard on the back.
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Hollidaysburg got the best of State College last season in districts. But, this time around, it was difficult to find fault with State College’s performance as it reclaimed the trophy and earned a first-round date in the PIAA tournament with the No. 2 seed out of District 3.
“I was more impressed not that they won, but how they won,” State College coach Jane Borden said, “with poise and class and sportsmanship and moxie.”
After del Castillo’s championship-clinching point, the crowd on Prospect Avenue cheered — “Let’s go, State!” — while one Hollidaysburg fan smacked a metal bench in frustration. State College’s players presented their coaches with potted flowers, while their celebration spilled on to the court.
One player bit his district award like an Olympic gold medalist. Another hugged the trophy as if it were a newborn. Others just smiled and laughed.
“Nobody was happy last year,” del Castillo mused. “Now, we’ve got our confidence. We see our prospects now as pretty good.”
Del Castillo’s match might’ve clinched the district title. But there were plenty of other highlights. Owen Lloyd winced between points after a January hip injury flared up, but he fought through the pain — “It wasn’t that bad,” he said afterward, while holding an ice pack — and teamed up with Terrence Li to defeat the Tigers’ doubles duo in straight sets, 6-3, 7-6 (5). Nick Vanden calmly cruised to a 6-1, 6-3 win over Hollidaysburg’s orange-shoed Rami Alkhafaji, and Matt Wherley rallied after breaking two tennis rackets right before the match.
One racket’s strings snapped during warm-ups with his team, while the other broke while volleying with his opponent before the first set. He ended up peeling off the blue grip on his coach’s racket, using that while his father pulled a stringing machine out of his car and fixed one in time for the second set — which he won.
Wherley’s third set was abandoned when del Castillo clinched the title. But, had del Castillo lost, Wherley was leading 4-3 and could’ve taken his team to victory. Instead, Wednesday’s hero proved to be del Castillo.
“I could’ve told you his score; I was racing in that third one,” Wherley said with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Only two more games, and I could win it.’ But nah. It still worked out.”
Del Castillo made sure of that. He struggled after his opponent took an extended break in the middle of the first set, eating a banana while chatting with his coach behind a chain-linked fence. The State College junior then dropped five straight games to lose that first set, but that’s when del Castillo’s coach told him it was time to make a decision: Change the game plan, or come to terms with losing and watching his teammates win from the stands.
He opted for the former, keeping the ball in play rather than going for the kill — and his Little Lions were all the better for it.
“I just got it together and started thinking positive,” del Castillo said. “I knew I could do this.”