TAMPA — There were about a half-dozen slices of white birthday cake set atop the park bench. A celebratory sushi dinner awaited the girls when their intra-squad doubles match was over.
Everyone was all smiles, seemingly just another day at the park for the defending Class 4A state champions.
“It’s a fun little challenge for the girls,” Plant girls tennis coach Margaret Drumsta said. “But they really want to win that dinner, too.”
The stakes had been considerably higher about a half-hour earlier, when Plant cruised to victories in all five singles matches against Wharton in the 4A-3 region final Thursday.
Plant lost only three of 63 sets, with Nos. 1 and 2 Blair Martin and Erica Oosterhout both rolling to 6-0, 6-0 victories. Nos. 3-5 Gabby Rodriguez, Monica Phipps and Maria Salmon also prevailed.
The win sends the Panthers back to the state tournament for the fourth consecutive year. Finals matches will start Wednesday at Sanlando Park in Altamonte Springs.
First, Plant had to take care of business at Cal Dickson Park, little more than a mile from campus.
Martin, the Times’ two-time Player of the Year, easily rebounded from her first defeat of the season — against Wiregrass Ranch’s Star Makarome in the region semifinal.
She quickly dispatched Andrea Valencia, showing no lingering disappointment from the defeat a couple days ago.
“I didn’t really dwell on it,” Martin said of the loss Tuesday. “As soon as I got home (Tuesday), I was already over it.”
With her 18th birthday falling on Wednesday, a chance for redemption Thursday and another shot at a state championship the following week, Martin had plenty to look forward to and played like it.
Drumsta said Blair, a Furman signee and the team’s only senior, even got a little boost from Rodriguez, a sophomore.
“(Blair) was a little shaken even though she knew she had played a good opponent,” Drumsta said. “But Gabby talked to her and reminded her that it’s wasn’t her first loss ever and that it isn’t a big deal.”
King shuts down foe
TEMPLE TERRACE — By the time the rest of the King boys team ran onto the Lightfoot Recreation Center courts to mob No. 3 singles player Vignesh Bhethanabotla, the Lions had already clinched their second straight region championship and trip to the Class 3A state tournament.
Bhethanabotla was the final player to collect a singles victory after he defeated Hunter Branster 6-1, 6-1 to cap a dominating performance against region final opponent George Jenkins.
King won all five singles matches without dropping a set and surrendered only 10 games total. When Bhethanabotla sent a winner past Branster for the final point, the Lions celebrated.
“The court rush was pretty cool,” King’s Hengyi Wu said. “We just planned that about five seconds before Vignesh’s match was over.”
Wu, a senior playing No. 5 singles, won the all-important fourth point by virtue of his 6-2, 6-1 win over Shin Zaw.
“I was counting the guys coming off the court, and that’s when I knew if I won my match, we were in,” Wu said. “That was pretty awesome.”
Hard-hitting No. 1 singles player Kiril Kirkov handled Gavin White 6-2, 6-1. King captain Victor Ke cruised past Carlos Ferreira 6-1, 6-0 at No. 2, and Greg Smith had an equally easy time at No. 4 against John Rios, winning 6-1, 6-0.
“Both teams were hungry, we just happened to be a little bit more on today,” King coach Peter Adler said. “I think we were just pumped up.”
The 5-0 victory was the second year in a row King blanked George Jenkins in the region final. The Lions enter next week’s state tournament with an undefeated record. Last season, King finished in a three-way tie for fifth at state.
“We’re on top of our game right now,” Adler said. “I’m so interested in going to state and seeing how we compare to last year. I really think we’re going to make an improvement.”
Team effort pays off for Holy Names
TAMPA — The absence of Academy of Holy Names top player Daniela Nasser turned Thursday’s regional into a topsy-turvy affair. And long — really, really long.
Five hours after they began play the Jaguars clinched a team trip to the Class 2A state tournament. Caroline Lozo and Grace Williams overcame Lakewood’s Avni Agrawal and Raven Adams 6-1, 4-6, 6-2 to clinch the second-round match, 4-2.
Also at Hillsborough Community College, Carrollwood Day’s girls earned a repeat state berth in Class A by topping Tampa Prep 4-1, and Jesuit swept Robinson 5-0.
Though it lost, Lakewood could have just as easily advanced without need for doubles. The Spartans were up 2-1 on straight-set victories by No. 3 Alie Danger and No. 4 Adams, and they led the other two matches by a set. But Olivia Rivas, playing at No. 2, rallied past K.C. Shelton 4-6, 6-0, 6-4 and senior Amanda Schifino — pressed into duty with Nasser en route back from the Easter Bowl in California — took a huge point at No. 5.
“If Daniela was here this would have gone a bit quicker, and with less effort,” Williams said. “But I’m proud of the team, and I think she will be, too.”
Needing to win one of the two doubles matches, AHN looked fine with Lozo and Williams up 6-1, 4-1. However, Lakewood punched back to force the deciding set. As that was happening, Lakewood seemed to have the No. 2 doubles match locked up, also ahead 6-1, 4-1. But in a final wacky twist to the day, Rivas and Schifino came back to force a third set.
As it turned out those two were up 5-1 when Lozo and Williams clinched.
“We were keeping an eye on the other match but I just wanted to win bad, knowing that Amanda is a senior,” Rivas said. “That fight and will to win carried us through.”
Lozo had cruised to a 6-0, 6-0 win over Agrawal in singles.
Before all that the day’s spotlight was on the battle royale between Jackie Fitz-Randolph and Paige Leavy. All three of their meetings turned up three sets, and Thursday it only felt like it, as Fitz-Randolph clinched the victory for CDS 7-5, 6-3.
The first set was 90 minutes of sizzling groundstrokes and some controversy. Leavy was given a point penalty when she returned a missed serve, hitting Fitz-Randolph in the shoulder. Afterward an emotional Leavy said it was unintentional, and that the call affected her.
Fitz-Randolph might not have agreed with that but did with Leavy, using “fierce” to describe their rivalry.
“I just didn’t want to go three sets. It was hot and I had to pull it together,” said Fitz-Randolph, who was joined in victory by sister Lauren, Sarah Yaffe and Casey Brynjolfsson. Tampa Prep’s Alexandra Benbadis topped McKenzie List 6-3, 7-6 (8-6).
Robinson’s boys gave a much better account of themselves than last year, when Jesuit needed less than an hour to advance. This time only one set was completed at the hour mark.
The longest match went to Jordan Nasser, beating Michael Marinskiy 6-1, 7-6 (7-2) at No. 1. Alex Crosby also needed a second-set tiebreak to defeat Chandler Luger at No. 5. Enzo Peltz led Palmer Evans 4-2 in the No. 3 match but Evans won 4 and 2. David Pagliarulo and Max Azzarelli rounded out the sweep.
Wharton falls to Wiregrass Ranch
WESLEY CHAPEL — On a balmy Thursday afternoon, Wiregrass Ranch looked to avenge last year’s region loss to visiting Wharton.
The Bulls struck early, taking Nos. 4 and 5 singles in straight sets, then eventually winning Nos. 1 and 2 to get the magic number to move on to state.
Wharton junior Alek Crnogorac fell 6-1, 6-4 to freshman Agustin Moreno at No. 2 singles, then the Bulls needed just one more singles win to lock up a state berth.
“I tried to hit it to his backhand because I know (Crnogorac) hits lots of winners,” Moreno said. “The key was not to get discouraged and play the next point.”
With sophomore Thomas Hwang and Niels van Dam going to a tiebreaker in the second set, then a long third, all eyes fell to No. 1 singles for the outcome.
Wharton junior Sam Chaffin and Courage Okungbowa slugged it out in the marquee matchup. Chaffin took the first set 6-2 — the first set Okungbowa has lost all season — but the senior hung on despite Chaffin’s blistering forehand and powerful serves.
“Sam has a big serve and my serves were off today so I just tried to stay focused and hoped he missed that first serve,” Okungbowa said. “I was thinking just trying to get it in.”
Okungbowa kept hanging on, taking the second set 2-6. Then Okungbowa’s endurance came into play. Neither player could hold serve in the final set, and Chaffin’s fatigue started to show. There were five service breaks in the nine-game set. Okungbowa finally held serve, then broke Chaffin to take a 5-3 lead as clouds moved in and a light rain fell.
Murmurs of postponing the match circulated as Okungbowa went up 40-15. The No. 3 match stopped to watch Okungbowa and Chaffin. On the next point, Chaffin charged the net and stabbed three baseline shots from Okungbowa back over the net. Then
Okungbowa creamed one past Chaffin for match point. An instant later a massive deluge came down and athletes, coaches and spectators raced for cover.
Okungbowa’s win sends Wiregrass Ranch to its second state tournament.
Terrapins come up short
Tampa Prep’s boys fell 4-2 to host Winter Haven All Saints’ in Class A. The Terrapins picked up wins at Nos. 4 and 5 singles. Danny Palmer defeated Devin Patel 6-1, 6-3, and Ben Leeds topped Andrew Shoreibah 6-1, 6-0. The Terrapins’ No. 1 player, Sam Rice, withdrew with an injury after Tyler Pate took the first set 6-0.
Correspondents Bryan Burns, Darek Sharp and Andy Warrener contributed to this report, which used information from the Ledger.