BEREA — The race for the girls regional tennis championship turned on a dime Saturday. Twice.
Mercer County is making a strong bid for its fifth consecutive girls 12th Region Tournament title this weekend, and Casey County is making a strong bid to stop that streak.
But the championship chances of both teams were nearly knocked off the tracks Saturday before players from each side dug in to win two of the best matches of the day at Berea College.
And those players knew full well that the outcome of their matches mattered even more to their teams than to themselves.
“I knew that we really needed to get this,” Sarah Walker of Mercer County. “I knew that if they got their first point and I lost this one, I realized that if everybody won the matches they should win and lost the matches they should lose, that we would not win as a team. But now we’re in a good place to bring home another regional.”
Walker, who returned to Mercer this season after a year off and was unseeded in the singles draw, won a tiebreaker over seventh-seeded Jodi Gay of Danville in her first-round match, then advanced to today’s quarterfinals with a much easier second-round victory.
A couple of hours later, the No. 2 doubles seeds, Haley Owens and Allie Tinsley of Casey County, needed three sets to pull out a win over a Lincoln County duo in the second round.
There was yet another twist in the second round of doubles, however, as unseeded doubles teams from both Casey and Mercer stormed past seeded opponents to move into the quarterfinals and add to the point totals for their teams.
With two of five rounds complete, Mercer leads Casey 8-6 in team points, which are awarded to teams for each of their players’ wins. The quarterfinals and semifinals are to be played today, with the championships scheduled for Monday.
All four singles and doubles entries from Mercer are still alive, while Casey has three of its four entries alive. No other girls team has more than two entries left.
“I think we’ve got a good shot,” Tinsley said after she and Owens finished for the day.
In the boys brackets, Berea leads what figures to be a tight race, while Boyle County, Casey and Mercer are right behind with six points each.
Walker said she felt she had a winnable match Saturday morning against Gay, even though the Danville girl was the one with the seed beside her name. Walker didn’t start playing in Mercer’s No. 2 singles spot until four or five matches into the season, so she hadn’t built up enough quality wins to merit a seed, but she had been playing well.
“I came into it thinking I would have the advantage, because I usually played the No. 2 singles (players during the regular season) ... but she really played well,” Walker said.
Gay won the second set by one more game than Walker won the first, and the third set was close from start to finish. Before the third set started, however, Walker had a talk with teammate Caitlin Baer, who is seeded No. 1 and who had beaten all of the other top players from area schools this season.
“She said I can do this, so that really got my confidence up, and I felt like if I could just keep going I’d get it,” Walker said. “I felt confident in the tiebreak because I think I’m good when I just play points and not necessarily games.”
Walker took the tiebreaker 7-3, giving her a signature victory in her comeback season. She sat out her junior year to make sure she had enough time to devote to an advanced placement calculus class, and she said she believes she made the right move, even though she got the only “B” on her high school transcript in that class.
But she said she loves tennis, and she wanted to come back for her final year before heading to college at Kentucky to study biology and eventually become a surgeon. She had spent five years in Mercer’s youth, middle school and high school programs before stepping away, and she said the game gradually started coming back to her when she started practicing again in January.
“Coming back this year, I’ve improved since my sophomore year when I played (last),” she said.
Mercer coach Diane Beauchamp said Walker likely wouldn’t have made the regional roster on last year’s championship team, but she’s glad to have her back this year.
“We were pretty heavily loaded last year, and it was a chance for her to focus on her academics. I’m just glad she came back,” Beauchamp said. “Coming back didn’t assure anything for her, but she didn’t lose much ground after being out. I think she was a little nervous about that, not sure how she’d be when she stepped back on the court, but she’s performed very steadily, and that was just a really huge win.”
It was a tough loss for Gay as well.
“You don’t have any control over the draw, and we knew when we drew Mercer it was going to be a tough draw, but ... I was proud of the way she played,” Danville coach Ryan Adams said. “It’s always tough losing a tiebreak like that.”
Owens and Tinsley won the first and third sets of their match with ease, but they faltered in the second to make things interesting.
“The second set was tougher than I thought it would be,” Owens said.
“We pretty much dug in and got it (in the third set),” Tinsley added. “We could’ve played like that in the second set, but I think we just kind of got too loose. After we won the first set 6-0, I think we got too loose.”
While they were working for their win, teammates Sara Coffman and Chelsey Lynn rolled to a 6-0, 6-1 victory over No. 3 seeds Anna Duncan and Sarah Nolan of Boyle, and Mercer’s Mary Baxter and Catheryne Claunch defeated No. 5 seeds Emily Erwin and Ashley Erwin of Madison Southern 6-2, 6-3.
All of the seeded entries advanced in boys singles and doubles, including the Nos. 4 and 7 seeded teams from Boyle, which are in opposite brackets.