After watching tennis players Chloe McIsaac and Isabel Burwitz win just one match at the Class 2A State Tournament a year ago, Belleville East coach Ross Peters knew something had to be done if the Lancers were going to go any further.
The girls in his program would do their part by working on their games in the off-season, so Peters did his by upgrading the Lancers schedule for the 2017 season and beyond.
“I made it a priority to upgrade our schedule and put us in the most challenging tournaments I could find. We played in tournaments in Moline, Champaign, Bloomington and Lockport. We played in the Missouri Duals and we played in the Southern Illinois Duals,” Peters said. “It was all about getting the girls the competition they needed to be ready for the (Southwestern) conference and the postseason.”
Last weekend at the Edwardsville Sectional, the tournament tested Lancers did something no team had been able to do in 20 years. They beat perennial state power Edwardsville for a sectional championship.
That magic moment came when McIsaac — a two-time Southwestern Conference champion — defeated Natalie Karibian, of Edwardsville, in the sectional singles final. Edwardsville had not lost a girls tennis sectional since 1996.
The victory came after a year of near misses for the Lancers who lost a 5-4 dual match to the Tigers then lost a one point decision at the Southwestern Conference Tournament.
“The dual came down to two third-set tiebreakers. We split those and they beat us 5-4. Then we lost by a point at the SWC,” Peters said. “We actually beat them at the Lockport Tournament and we were 4-0 at the Southwestern Illinois Duals while they were 3-1.
“We had been on their coat tails all year and so to be able to beat them on their courts is rewarding. Edwardsville is a name tennis program around the state. Hopefully this will help us start to get there as well.”
Burwitz, the other half of the Lancers’ 1-2 combination, placed third in the singles draw while the doubles team of Jo Jo Skaer and Madison Hamilton was third in the doubles draw for East, which finished with 28 points — two more than Edwardsville.
Skaer said that while McIsaac and Burwitz played key roles, the rapid development of Skaer and Hamilton was also a key for the Lancers’ late season surge.
“Jo Jo and Madi were our No. 2 doubles team at the conference tournament and they beat Edwardsville’s No. 2 team,” Peters said. “That win was big because it gave them a lower seed at the sectional where they lost to a very good team from Belleville West. If they don’t win that match at conference, then we get a lower seed and have to play that (West) team in the sectional quarterfinals.
“That win at conference turned out to be a huge one.”
East will take three entries to the Class 2A State Tennis Tournament on Thursday in suburban Chicago. McIsaac and Burwitz will compete in the singles draw while the combination of Skaer and Hamilton will go in doubles.
Peters said he hopes the better competition East has played will benefit them this week.
“The two-class system has made the state tournament more difficult. I can only speak for Class 2A, but when you have a field of 64 singles players and 64 doubles teams, everybody is very good. It used to be if you got a good draw that you could possibly avoid a seeded player for the first couple of rounds,” Peters said. “Now, you are playing a very good opponent each match. Chloe and Isabel played the top seeds in doubles the first match last year.
“Our goal is to just go out and play the best we have all season. If we get into some close matches, hopefully we can win a couple of them. We would like to think we could be in the top 15 teams.”