Gate City's John Ferguson captured the VHSL Group A singles championship on Thursday during the Spring Jubilee. (Times-News file photo)
BLACKSBURG — Gate City’s John Ferguson had never so much as picked up a tennis racket before trying out to play for the Blue Devils as a freshman. Thursday at Virginia Tech’s Burrows-Burleson Tennis Center, he picked up a Group A state singles title.
After falling behind 5-2 in the first set, the Gate City senior won 11 straight games to post a 7-5, 6-0 victory over George Mason’s Tommy Weber.
“He’s come a long way and has done a tremendous job over the last four years,” said Blue Devils coach Steve Shockley, whose last individual state singles champ was German exchange student Henning Kuich in 2004. “In terms of senior leadership and in terms of what he’s done on the court, you couldn’t ask for better.”
Ferguson, who lost 6-4, 6-1 to George Mason’s Kan Tagami in last year’s state singles tournament semifinals, won his first two games before the hard-hitting Weber backed him into a corner by reeling off five straight.
“Tennis can last forever if you want it to. That what I thought about and I just kept playing and kept pushing. I just kept trying to get the ball back. Obviously, he was trying to hit winners. I knew if I could get it back, maybe he could make some errors. I just tried to be consistent,” said Ferguson, who advanced to the finals with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Nathan Salle of Appomattox Regional Governor’s School.
Weber, a senior who paired with Karl Campanella to win a state doubles title for the Mustangs in 2012, burned a lot of calories in his earlier 6-4, 6-4 semifinal win over Glenvar’s Igor Ponjavic. He never psychologically recovered from letting Ferguson off the hook one game shy of collecting the first set.
“He just played really good defense and capitalized on his opportunities,” said Weber, who’ll get another crack at Ferguson on Friday when the Blue Devils and the Mustangs square off in the Group A boys team tennis semifinals.
In other action, Ferguson joined forces with future Emory & Henry teammate Luke Funkhouser to engineer a 6-0, 6-1 win over Glenvar’s Alex Dunkenberger and Colten Walls. It was the sole boys doubles tournament semifinal game played Thursday. All four players were available, allowing the tournament directors to free up a little precious indoor court time on Friday.
Thursday’s Group A boys and girls singles tournaments were originally scheduled to be played at Radford University’s Dedmon Center outdoor tennis complex, but were moved to the Burrows-Burleson indoor courts in Blacksburg due to heavy rains that have affected the entire VHSL Spring Jubilee playing schedule.
All of Friday’s VHSL events except tennis have been moved to Saturday due to the forecast of continued heavy rain. Finals will be played Sunday. Tennis will proceed indoors, but with Tech’s six-court facility already assigned to Group AA boys and girls team tennis, the Group A team matches are being sent to separate indoor facilities in Roanoke.
The Gate City boys will play Mason at the Sun Tennis indoor courts at 5840 Starkey Road. The Gate City girls will play the Lady ’Stangs at N-Dor Tennis Club at 3624 Aerial Way. Both matches are slated to begin approximately at 11 a.m., but actual starting time will be dictated by court availability. The boys site has two courts and the girls site has three. Team and doubles championship matches are expected to return to the outdoor courts in Radford Saturday, weather permitting.
Mason’s Weber won’t be the only state singles hopeful looking for payback on Friday. Gate City’s Rosa Smith was defeated by the Lady Mustangs’ Mariam Salakaia. The freshman, who is a native of the Republic of Georgia, held off Smith 6-3, 6-2 in Thursday’s championship match.
“(Salakaia) lost focus there for a second, but she turned it back up and did a good job. She loves playing tennis. That’s all,” said Mason girls coach Chrisline Baldo.
The loss was a bitter pill to swallow for Smith, a diminutive dynamo who ousted Appomattox Regional Governor’s School’s Ginna Slattum 6-1, 6-1 in the semifinals. Thursday marked the second consecutive year the Gate City sophomore advanced to the state singles finals only to taste defeat.
“She’s really consistent. All around, she’s got it. I tried to keep her in play, but then she’d just hit a winner,” said Smith, who gave up three consecutive games to Salakaia in the first set but scrapped her way back to keep pressure on her Region B rival.
While a year younger than Smith, the Mason ace boasted a significant advantage of height and wingspan. The Region D champ had to add some new tricks to her usual approach.
“That girl has a really strong game. She’s a power hitter. We tried to mix Rosa’s game up a little, adding some slice and deep topspin balls. In our district and region Rosa is a power hitter. I think Rosa knew going into it she had to play a different game than what she’s normally playing,” said Gate City girls coach Delonda Spivey, who led the Lady Blue Devils to the team title in 2012.