ALTAMONTE SPRINGS — When Hillsborough boys coach Mark Palus emerged from the Class 3A state tournament seeding meetings Sunday night, he told Brian Kowalski, the Terriers’ No. 2, he was in for a fight.
“He came out of the meeting and told me to start drinking my water and Gatorade,” Kowalski said. “I knew I had a tough draw.”
Kowalski entered the No. 2 team singles bracket as the top seed, and on Tuesday’s Day 2 of the 3A team tournament at Sanlando Park, he was the only Terrier standing, having advanced to the morning’s final.
And Kowalski, who committed to Emory last week, clawed his way to a gold medal, beating Pensacola Washington’s Reece Acree, the 20th-ranked player in the state USTA rankings, 6-4, 6-1.
It completed a rough, albeit redeeming, week for Kowalski, who didn’t make it to the final day last year at No. 1 singles.
“It’s good to end up with a win,” Kowalski said. “Last year I didn’t make it to the last day in singles or doubles, so it was good to win this year and go out on a winning note for high school.”
But No. 2 was equally a challenge facing Acree and Lakewood Ranch’s Arnav Mohanty, the state’s 18th-ranked 16s player. Combine four-star recruit Austin Robles of Barron Collier, Kowalski’s quarterfinal opponent, and he survived a gauntlet of outstanding players without dropping a set.
“I came out knowing I had to play well,” Kowalski said. “The competition was still pretty fierce. They were all top players so I knew what I had to do. I’ve got a cut on my hand. I’ve got a bloody nose. I was pretty beat up from yesterday. I had two tough matches in singles despite the scores. I knew what I had to do and I did it pretty well.”
Barron Collier claimed the team title.
Also in 3A, Chamberlain’s top-seeded individual doubles team of Nicole Mera and Lili Na’daslaki lost their quarterfinal 6-3, 2-6, 6-2 to Winter Haven’s Abbey Martinez and Meredith Mancini.
Class A girls: At Red Bug Lake Park in Casselberry, Carrollwood Day sisters Jacque and Lauren Fitz-Randolph — an eighth-grader and sixth-grader, respectively — overcame a lack of experience and size to advance to the individual doubles finals.
The Fitz-Randolphs entered their final match against P.K. Yonge’s Jazz Whittaker and Kiah Turner with a No. 2 seed and 11-0 record, including a three-set win over Jacksonville Episcopal’s Abby Gist and Veronica Pitocchi 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 in the semifinals under the late-morning sun.
But the top-seeded team of Whittaker, a sophomore, and Turner, a freshman, took control early in the first set by utilizing their height advantage at the net, earning a 6-3, 6-0 win.
“It was very intimidating,” said Lauren Fitz-Randolph. “It felt like you almost had to get the ball over perfectly in order to get it past them."
Said Jacque Fitz-Randolph: “You could tell they had a lot of experience. We just started playing together, but we’re working on it. I think we’ll have a great chance next year.”
Just advancing to the final was a major step for the third-year CDS girls program.
“They played beyond their years all season long, overachieving at every opportunity,” CDS coach John Most said of the Fitz-Randolphs. “This was their first loss, and it was in finals of their first state tournament.”