At the same moment State College’s Matt Wherley was facing down a third match point from Hollidaysburg’s Rami Ahkafahalgi, Little Lion Owen Lloyd dropped his singles match two courts away.
State College’s season was resting on Wherley’s racket, and the junior hit a short shot that drew Ahkafahalgi to the net. The Tigers freshman hit a backhand volley wide, and Wherley had life.
A couple minutes later, he converted to tie the set 5-5, and it looked like the Little Lions were making a dramatic, storybook-worthy comeback.
The ending was spoiled. Wherley lost the match in a tiebreak, and Hollidaysburg captured the District 6 Class AAA team championship Wednesday afternoon at the Penn State Tennis Center, winning 3-1.
“I knew the matchups were going to be dead-on,” State College coach Jane Borden said. “I knew we were going to have to play our best tennis to beat them. Hollidaysburg has a lot of upperclassmen that have been on this big stage before and really, really had a lot of energy and poise. They knew how to play this.”
But Borden’s program is also pretty familiar with the big stage, entering the day having won 12 of the previous 13 district titles.
“It would be disappointing, but we played great,” sophomore Nick Vanden said. “They are a great team and have great seniors. They’re going to go off and play, do great in college. We’re a young team and we still have to work hard.”
Vanden, who picked up the district singles title two weeks ago, earned Little Lions’ point, dispatching Max Sheetz 6-3, 6-2.
“I played pretty solid,” Vanden said. “I kept the ball in play.”
Lloyd dropped his match to Sam Skye 6-2, 6-3 in the other singles contest.
In doubles, the Tigers’ Emri Cardaklai and Josh Cobler defeated Terrence Li and Garrett Schoonmaker 6-3, 6-1. The final doubles match was tied 2-2 in the first set when it was abandoned between the teams of Matt Bristol and Aleef Mannan for State College, and Ryan Gupta and Ryan Ayerbeck.
The day came down to Wherley and Ahkafahalgi in a back-and-forth battle. The Hollidaysburg freshman surged to a 5-2 lead in the second set and seemed poised to wrap up the title. But Wherley took the next two games and was serving down 4-5 when he faced his first two match points. On the second, Wherley raced into the net, and when the freshman sent a low lob, Wherley hammered the ball emphatically into the court, punctuating the moment with a “C’mon! Let’s go!”
“That happens,” Wherley said of facing the match points. “You never want to get down match point. When you’re in that position, all the pressure’s on the other guy.”
Wherley fought off another match point before tying the set at 5-5, and broke Ahkafahalgi to go up 6-5, but the freshman broke right back to force the tiebreak. He got another set point when his lob to the corner did get over Wherley’s head, and he sealed it when he approached the net and Wherley’s lob sailed long.
A frenzy of Tiger teammates then mobbed Ahkafahalgi.
“Mentally I was feeling pretty good,” Wherley said after the 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) loss. “Physically I was pretty tired. The whole match was all mental.”
Even as her team finished the season 15-2, Borden didn’t think they were a prohibitive favorite Wednesday.
Now, Vanden, Wherley and Lloyd will get ready for PIAA action. Wherley and Lloyd teamed up for the district doubles title a week ago, after just two days of practice together, and they all compete in Hershey on May 27-28.
“This is my first time going,” Vanden said. “I don’t really know what to expect. I know my coaches are very experienced and have taken a lot of people there. I’ll just work really, really hard and try to get deep into the bracket.”
There will be plenty of practice time between now and then.
“We have to keep them motivated and hungry,” assistant coach Jackie Gibbins said. “Sometimes there’s a letdown once the season’s over. You’ve got to really keep them going.”