State College’s Owen Lloyd chewed on his gray T-shirt right before the third set, while his tennis teammate just stared at his coach while gulping water from his red bottle.
“Stay feisty,” their coach told them. “Get fired up.”
Intensity wasn’t an issue during Thursday’s third set in the District 6 boys’ tennis doubles championship, as the agressive pair of Lloyd and Matt Wherley combined to defeat the Hollidaysburg duo of Rami Alkhafaji and Sammy Obeid by a score of 6-2, 5-7, 6-3 at Altoona’s Procare Fitness Club.
It was Lloyd and Wherley’s second straight district doubles championship.
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“It’s great to be able to come back this year and win again,” Lloyd said, smiling as a gold medal hung from his neck.
After Hollidaysburg couldn’t handle State College’s final serve, giving the Little Lions’ the game-clinching point, Lloyd turned toward his coach and shouted “Yeah!” while flexing like the Hulk. Wherley immediately walked toward his teammate and the two embraced after a hard-fought match that District 6 officials commended both teams for.
The Little Lions cruised in the first set and led 3-1 in the second before the Golden Tigers began their improbable rally. Hollidaysburg started to play more aggressively, highlighted by Obeid smacking anything that approached the net, and that caused pangs of frustration for the State College pair — especially after Hollidaysburg rallied to win that second set.
“It would’ve been great to win,” Hollidaysburg coach Brian Denis mused, “but, at the same time, just getting back in that match and proving they can hang with a team of that caliber, I was really happy with our guys.”
Between those second and third sets, State College coach Jane Borden walked briskly over to her two players to share some advice. Previously, she had whispered to her fellow coaches that her players weren’t aggressive enough — and then she let her two players know directly.
They nodded before jogging back on to the indoor court.
“She basically said we weren’t doing what she said,” Lloyd added. “And then we started doing it.”
Lloyd, a sophomore, acknowledged that he was a bit nervous before the third set started, hence the shirt chewing. But his teammate just laughed at that notion.
“I love third sets, I’m not going to lie,” Wherley said. “Because once you win the first set, you have to react to them in the next set. But if you lose, then you can look at what they’re doing, and you make the change and they have to react.”
Lloyd turned toward his teammate with a confused look: “So are you saying you prefer losing?”
“Well,” Wherley countered. “I like the changeover after the second set more than the first because it’s more in your hands. You have control. We saw what they were doing, and then they had to react.”
At one point, Hollidaysburg had actually taken the 3-2 lead in the final set. But Wherley remained proactive, clinching the sixth game after a return that was so full of top-spin his opponents didn’t touch the ball because they thought it couldn’t have possibly stayed in. It did. Clearly.
Earlier in the match, Wherley hit a back-to-the-net, over-the-head shot that somehow bounced onto his opponent’s side and they flubbed the return. Throughout various points of the match, Wherley and Lloyd placed the ball at angles that caused Obeid and Alkhafaji to shake their heads.
“They hit some incredible shots and some really big points that just left my guys like, ‘Oh man,’” Denis said. “It’s not like we lost. State College played really well; they hit some big shots and put the pressure back on us. We just fell a little bit short.”
The four — the pair from State College and the duo from Hollidaysburg — posed together for pictures in the end, taking pride in a match that caused most on-lookers to fight for room in a narrow hallway that allowed for a better view of the action.
Wherley said he planned to stick his medal with his growing collection of about 10 such honors on his book shelf. Lloyd said his gold medal was going straight to his trophy case.
This time, it was Wherley’s turn to look at Lloyd with a confused look: “You already have a trophy case?”
Added Borden: “They’re great teammates. They just stay incredibly positive; I couldn’t ask for two better guys.”