By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ALEXANDRIA, Ind. —
As she prepared for what would be the final point of a two-hour, six-minute match, Alexandria’s Hannah Libler briefly pulled her wrist and forearm across her forehead.
When her No. 3 singles contest began against Frankton’s Lucy Browning, there were a handful of friends and family gathered outside the fence around the court.
Now, with a berth in today’s sectional championship match at Highland on the line, players from both teams and every other fan still on the Alexandria campus were focused on this point.
When Libler won it — ending a marathon 6-2, 7-6 (3) victory — her celebration was a more of an exhale for a shout for joy.
With Libler’s point, the Tigers held off Frankton 3-2 and will meet Pendleton Heights with a chance for a second straight sectional crown today.
Libler knew her match had gained importance when she saw the crowd outside the fence expand.
“I try to keep my eyes on the court,” she said, after admitting she’d peeked at the masses, “so I don’t get discouraged.”
There wasn’t much for Alexandria to be discouraged with Thursday, beginning Sarah-Kate Brenner’s surprisingly dominant 6-0, 6-0 victory against Frankton’s Alexys Rastetter at No. 1 singles.
Rastetter entered the contest with a perfect 16-0 record, but she could never find solid ground against Brenner.
The Tigers’ star had a lead against Rastetter during their regular-season meeting but lost in three sets. This time, she was determined not to allow the Eagles’ ace back into the match.
Placing the ball with uncanny precision, Brenner was content to win long volleys and allow Rastetter’s frustration to grow.
“Whenever you play tennis, a lot of it is a mental game,” Brenner said. “You gotta play the same whether you’re winning or losing.”
It was windy during Brenner’s last meeting against Rastetter, and the Frankton player’s power allowed her to cut through the wind. In near perfect conditions Thursday, however, that advantage was mitigated.
And Brenner quickly turned the contest into a chess match and an exercise in patience.
“She’s what I call a wall player,” Frankton coach Brett Sanders said. “She keeps hitting the ball back and hitting it back and hitting it back. She doesn’t try to impress anybody, and that’s a really effective way to win — especially in high school tennis. Congratulations to her on a fantastic job and a fantastic season.”
More often than not, when Rastetter tried to assert her power game Thursday it backfired with shots going into the net or out of play. Brenner, who improved to 18-5 on the season, remained even-keeled throughout — playing her return-and-volley game with lethal efficiency.
“I can’t say enough about what Sarah-Kate did,” Alexandria coach Matt DeVault said. “After the fourth game, it seemed like (Rastetter) completely played Sarah-Kate’s game, (Brenner) plays smart tennis.”
Brenner’s victory set the tone, and the Tigers quickly earned another point with the No. 1 doubles team of Abbie Miller and Allie Hueston storming past Frankton’s Madison Jenson and Abby Morgan 6-1, 6-2.
Then the Eagles answered.
Sydeney Wagoner put Frankton on the board with a 6-2, 6-3 win against Alexandria’s Abby Matthew at No. 2 singles, and the Eagles tied the match when Shelby Cox and Michaela Walls knocked off Shanna Kelly and Danielle Maynard 6-3, 6-4 at No. 2 doubles.
That left just Libler and Browning still on the court in 80-degree heat.
Libler won the first set 6-2, but the heat began to wear on her in the second set and she dropped the first three games.
Browning still led 5-2 when Libler scored a key breakpoint and turned the match.
“I felt like I got my second wind,” she said. “I was controlling the ball better. In the middle (of the match), I think we were both tired, and my shots started to get sloppy.”
Browning recovered to extend her lead to 6-5, but Libler won the 12th game to force a tiebreaker. She quickly took control, winning the first three points and holding on for a 7-3 victory.
It was a tough loss for the Eagles, but one they can use as fuel for the future.
“If this doesn’t get you fired up, I don’t know what will,” Sanders said. “It’s unfortunate for our three seniors. They all played really well. But we had a good season, and we definitely have a really good foundation for next year.”
The Tigers, meanwhile, are now focused on defending their sectional title. They’ll have a tough task against Pendleton Heights, which won a 3-2 decision in the semifinals of the county tournament last month.
DeVault had particular praise for the Arabians’ No. 1 singles player Carly Wilson and No. 2 Emma McCardwell. But he said Alexandria will be ready to compete.
“I told the girls it doesn’t matter how you get there,” he said. “You just get to the final match, and you have a chance to win a championship.”