ROANOKE — George Mason girls tennis coach Chrisline Baldo never anticipated her team having to challenge the defending state champions in the middle of an industrial park.
But Baldo would have been willing to play Gate City anywhere to obtain the outcome the Lady Mustangs produced Friday.
An overpowering victory at No. 1 singles by Mariam Salakaia set the tone, and the Region B champions went on to oust the Lady Blue Devils 5-2 in the VHSL Group A girls team championships at N-Dor Tennis Club in Roanoke.
“I’m so glad the girls fought for every single point. I’m so happy with what they did today,” said Baldo, who saw the match put on ice when No. 4 seed Peggy Brozi endured a marathon defensive effort by Gate City’s Emily Hensley, 7-5, 6-4. “I think that was (Brozi’s) longest match, ever. It certainly was for me, watching her.”
Mason, which last won a team state title in 1988, faces Radford in the finals, which will be played at the Dedmon Center outdoor tennis complex in Radford if weather allows.
“You win some, you lose some. But the winning feels so much better. The losing feels like a knife in your chest,” said Gate City coach Delonda Spivey, who’ll still have the Lady Devils duo of Rosa and Emily Smith in today’s Group A individual doubles title match at Radford. “George Mason is a great team and a fundamentally strong team. I think they’re going to win a state championship.”
Gate City’s boys squad didn’t fare any better against the Lady Mustangs’ male counterparts. The Mason boys eliminated the Blue Devils 5-1 at the Sun Tennis Center indoor facility across town.
“These kids are used to playing in all kinds of circumstances, whether it’s all six going on or three going on or two going on. That wasn’t a factor,” said Blue Devils coach Steve Shockley, who got a strong win at No. 1 singles from John Ferguson, who’ll pair with future Emory & Henry teammate Luke Funkhouser in today’s individual doubles finals.
All of Friday’s Group A team matches were moved to commercial indoor courts in Roanoke to avoid a logjam at Virginia Tech’s Burrows Burleson Center, which was already the site of the Group AA matches. The girls were assigned to a three-court facility and the boys were sent to a two-court facility — the rationale being that boys tend to play faster.
Even so, there was a brief attempt to move the Gate City-Mason boys matches to the Roanoke College outdoor courts. The attempt was discouraged by a fresh spate of rain, however, and the boys returned to the smaller, newer facility in the suburbs.
A modern marvel when it was built in the early 1970s, the N-Dor courts and supporting shell building betray evidence of its industrial pedigree as well as its advanced age. It could probably use a little fresh paint.
“There was actually a dead lizard behind the court,” noted Lady Blue Devils No. 5 seed Taylor Carter, who gave her teammates hope with a 6-3, 6-1 win over Dana Sembrera. “The way these courts are, the ball bounces lower, so I used more slice. That really helped me a lot.”
Players and fans of the respective teams cheered the action from behind interior windows, packed like sardines in the enclosed lobby area.
The Lady Blue Devils got a win at No. 6 singles from Hannah Spivey, who beat Madison Solty 6-0, 6-2.
“All this has been confusing, having to move to the different courts, from the outdoor to the indoor. But you just have to play and hope for the best,” Hannah Spivey said.
Salakaia, an obvious eventual Division I prospect even as a freshman, established the top half of the Lady Mustangs’ order with a 6-0, 6-0 win over Rosa Smith. Mason’s Kynadi Mauney beat Emily Smith 6-1, 6-1 at No. 2 and Carrinton Mauney beat Jessica Edds 6-2, 6-1 at No. 3 singles.
Hensley, whose rallies of epic duration helped carry Gate City to last year’s state title, didn’t give up the ghost in her match until the Mauney sisters outlasted the Smith sisters 6-1, 7-6 (7-2) at No. 1 doubles.
“When they went into the tiebreaker, I felt that this was our strength because we do a lot of tiebreakers. That’s something I just felt might be going our way,” Coach Spivey said.
While that instance didn’t, the Smith sisters did salvage the weekend with a 6-2, 6-4 win over Graham’s Caitlin Williams and Rebecca Day in the doubles tournament semifinals.
For the Blue Devils boys, Ferguson averted revenge-bent Tommy Weber with a 6-3, 6-2 win at No. 1 singles. Ferguson ousted the Mason ace in Thursday’s singles championship match in Blacksburg.
Otherwise, the Mustangs prevailed down the line. Jacob Morris beat Funkhouser 6-0, 6-2 at No. 2 , Nate Jones beat Peyton Palmer 6-1, 6-1 at No. 3, Santiago Villalon edged Zach Parker 6-3, 7-6 (7-3), Jakob Karstens halted an Isaac Shockley comeback effort 6-1, 6-4, and Jacob Field closed it out with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Timmy Munsey at No. 6, suspending the No. 1 doubles match with Weber and Nate Jones up a set against Ferguson and Funkhouser.
“This is the first time these kids have ever gotten this far. The last time was in 2009,” Shockley said. “This is a whole fresh batch of kids coming in. The level of competition we see here is a step above. And these kids raised their bar.”