The Highland High School girls tennis team won the program’s first sectional title in 31 years over the weekend. The Lady Bulldogs captured the IHSA Class 1A Centralia Sectional, held Friday and Saturday, nipping Flora by a single point for the team crown.
Highland sophomore Taylor Fleming won the singles title to help power the Lady Bulldogs to the title of the 10-team sectional.
Fleming defeated senior teammate Mia Walters 6-0, 6-0 in the final to lead the way for Highland, which finished with 26 points to edge out Flora.
The Lady Bulldogs also got a second-place finish in doubles from senior Kirsten Plocher and sophomore Kate Feldmann.
Fleming, Walters and the doubles duo of Plocher and Feldmann will be making the trip to the IHSA Girls Tennis State Final Tournament, which will be held Thursday through Saturday at Buffalo Grove High School in suburban Chicago.
“It’s truly an amazing feeling to see all of our hard work come together to bring home more hardware for our school and our coaches,” said Plocher, who was HHS’ No. 1 singles player all year but elected to focus more on doubles with Feldmann. “I think I speak for everyone on our team when I say that this is a sufficient reward for all the work put in this season. I know for a fact that everyone going to state this year is so excited to go represent the 618 in Chicago. I don’t think any of us can thank our coaches enough for believing in our abilities — even when we didn’t. This is such a great way to end the year, and I’m so blessed to have my teammates, coaches, and family cheering me on in these last few matches of my career.”
Coach Matt Pellock said he is so proud of what his team has accomplished this fall.
“It has been incredible to watch the great tennis from this team and consistent determination they have had that has lead to one of the most successful falls our program has seen,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what they might do at the state tournament.”
Highland had three entries in the sectional that were seeded to qualify for the state tournament, including Plocher and Feldmann as the top seed in doubles, and Fleming as the top seed in singles.
“Those three had a great draw against players that were lower varsity players on teams we had regular season success against,” Pellock said. “We thought it would come down to us against Flora going into Saturday, and that is what happened. Flora had two doubles teams make it to Saturday, and with their singles players not getting past their quarterfinal matches, that gave our team a chance to win. But it would require some strong finishes. Basically, we knew that we needed to win every semifinal on Saturday to finish ahead of Flora, and that would come against tough opponents.”
Pellock said it was a truly rewarding experience.
“I was definitely concerned that it was too tall an order to finish with all three entries to make the finals, but they did it,” he said. “It required multiple comebacks, but the fight from our singles, and then the thrilling final set from our No. 1 doubles (team) was something I have never seen. This is what these four great players have been able to do all season, and they did it again in their strongest performance of the season.”
After double-bageling her opponent from Hillsboro, Fleming surrendered just one game to her Salem foe in a 6-0, 6-1 victory to qualify for state.
Fleming played Mascoutah freshman Ella Mostoller, who Fleming lost to early in the season. But Fleming played so confidently, dominating Mostoller in a 6-1, 6-0 win.
“The potential of Mia (Walters) and Taylor (Fleming) meeting in the sectional final, became a reality, and they had a lot of fun,” Pellock said. “It ended with a singles championship for Taylor, and a run in a sectional tournament that I don’t know has ever happened from a Highland player —only losing two total games the entire tournament.”
A key match would that be a big undertaking was if Walters could get past Centralia’s top player, junior Michelle Lynch, with a tough third-place match lurking against Mascoutah’s Mostoller, who Mia had a tough loss to last weekend.
“We liked this matchup, because Mia is so steady, and (we) thought we could force Centralia (Lynch) into an uncomfortable amount of rallies,” Pellock said.
Early on, Lynch was strong and came to the net almost every point. Then she put away any easy shot Walters would normally hit.
“But Mia has been so relentless in her singles that she will continue to battle, no matter the score,” Pellock said.
Walters was able to turn a 1-4 deficit to 3-4.
“(Lynch) could sense the pressure of the comeback from Mia,” Pellock said.
And come back she did, taking the set 7-5. She went on to win the second set 6-0
“(It was) a special performance from Mia and one the team really needed,” Pellock said.
Plocher and Feldmann double-bageled both their opponents from Hillsboro and Mascoutah to qualify.
There was one semifinal, though, that if the Lady Bulldogs lost, their other results could not carry them to an overall win. Plocher and Feldmann had to win against Flora’s No. 2 doubles team of juniors Kyrsten Darrough and Gracy Himelick, who qualified for state last year.
“(Plocher) had some early struggles to find her game, and Kate (Feldmann) was able to stay steady to manage a couple games to hang on down 2-5 in the first set,” Pellock said. “We played much more consistent, and the extra shots from Flora that got us early, we were able to manage and win an impressive five games in a row for a 7-5 first set.”
Bu the energy from Flora picked up in the second set, and they would win it 6-2.
Pellock said Plocher then stepped up and played the best set of doubles she has ever played, at the most important time of her career.
“She came to life and played with great confidence, tracking down shots and firing forehands and first serves that Flora could not handle. Even after losing a 40-0 lead that could have gotten them a 3-0 lead, the level of play did not fall, and Kirsten (Plocher) and Kate (Feldmann) won 6-1 in the final set, and clinched the sectional championship for Highland.”
Flora was very strong in the doubles final, and Feldmann and Plocher were a little too drained from their epic semifinal to fight like they normally could, and would finish second.
Highland’s other doubles team of sophomore Ashley Basden and senior Arianna Kampwerth just missed a chance for a seed in doubles and would draw the Mascoutah one doubles team in their first match. They had a very close result but fell in three sets, 6-4, 4-6, 2-6.
“Mascoutah was really struggling, and we played smart, not letting them take many easy opportunities, and that put pressure on Mascoutah to make shots when they could, and they were regularly missing those shots,” Pellock said. “It was only their second loss of the season, and that was against Mascoutah’s top two players.”
Class 1A Althoff Sectional
The Althoff Crusaders won both the singles and doubles championship, but it was the depth of the Triad Knights that made the difference in a three-point win over host Althoff, 23-20.
Althoff junior Jordyn Roper defeated Triad’s Meghan Dulaney 6-2, 6-1 to win the singles title, while Crusaders juniors Olivia Melichar and Mary Nester won the doubles championship with a 6-2, 6-1 win over Hannah Hudson and Chelsea Mang, of Jerseyville.
Triad sophomore Caitlyn Smith was the only other local player to advance to the Class 1A state tournament. Smith placed third in singles for the Knights, who finished with 23 points.
The Class 1A state finals begin Thursday in suburban Chicago.
Belleville News-Democrat reporter Dean Criddle contributed to this story.