ALTAMONTE SPRINGS — Wharton’s boys and Plant’s girls arrived at the Class 4A state tennis team championships with their share of questions.
With last year’s state titles distant memories, the Wildcats and Panthers, carrying mostly the same cast of players, came to Sanlando Park with something to prove.
By Tuesday afternoon, they had left their mark here and wore the pains of two days of constant tennis — cramped legs, sprained ankles, drained Advil supplies, empty five-hour energy bottles, bruised egos.
But both also came away with trophies and satisfaction.
Wharton made Hillsborough County history, becoming the first school to win three straight team titles. While Plant’s move up to 4A met a roadblock in Miami Dr. Krop, which won its fourth straight state title, the Panthers finished second for their third straight top-two state finish.
The heros of the draw were an accomplished senior and a wide-eyed freshman.
Wharton No. 1 Mike Alford, a senior, added three medals to his impressive high school resume, winning the singles crown and placing second in No. 1 doubles with Rohit Navelkar.
Plant freshman Blair Martin, less than three weeks removed from turning 15, was the only non-Dr. Krop entry to win state gold, claiming the No. 2 singles title in a three-set final.
Still, the key was depth. Wharton edged runnerup Cypress Bay 15-13, needing Alford’s singles win and Jon Ho’s win at No. 4 singles to clinch. Ho and Ben Hwang also claimed the No. 2 singles crown.
“We were resilient,” said Alford, who beat the top seed, Cypress Bay’s Ryan Smith, 6-2, 6-2 in the No. 1 singles final. “There are always ups and downs every time we come here. Everything is real close. We all had to keep everyone together. We do a good job of that. Finally we can take a breath and get all the nerves out. We’re definitely all tired.”
In her finals match, Martin rallied from losing the first set, 6-1, to take the next two 6-4, 6-2 against Dr. Krop’s Aikemi Maehama.
“I was just hoping I could come back and just thinking how much it would mean to our team to win a gold,” Martin said. “That kept me going. It felt great. It was very tough. It was very tiring because that girl hit every ball back. I just kept my feet moving and went for it.”
Plant’s doubles teams advanced to the finals before losing to Dr. Krop, but the Panthers had already distanced themselves from third-place Parkland Douglas.
“We knew (Dr. Krop) was extremely deep and extremely talented,” Plant coach Lynn Vu said. “Our girls played their hearts out the last two days and two walk away with the runner-up trophy is awesome.”
Alford will play in Wednesday morning’s Class 4A overall singles championship against St. Petersburg’s Edward Corty, the individual singles winner. Alford won the overall title last year and beat Corty in two sets at regionals.
Alford, the only senior in Wharton’s top five, leaves a new gold standard in Hillsborough County tennis — and hands over a dynasty to the underclassman.
“It was tough this year because we dealt with a lot of injuries,” Hwang said. “Both Mike and Rohit cramped and I rolled my ankle, but the good part is winning it again. This sets a new standard for other teams to try to match us.”