TREASURE ISLAND — All eyes were on St. Petersburg Catholic's Melissa Smith and Tampa Catholic's Taylor Neal as the girls battled at the all-important No. 5 singles spot.
The Barons and Crusaders had split the four singles matches in their Class 2A, Region 5 final, meaning the winner at No. 5 would likely determine which team advanced to state.
With no other matches on court, Smith and Neal commanded the undivided attention of spectators.
"It made me a little nervous," Smith said. "Plus, knowing that I needed to win for the team to go to state, that was a lot of pressure."
Smith fought through the nerves and throng of spectators to post a 6-3, 7-5 victory. Coupled with Molly Smith and Danielle Nickerson's 6-1, 6-1 win at No. 2 doubles, the Barons earned a second straight trip to the state finals with a 4-3 victory over Tampa Catholic.
"It's quite a day for both the teams to go to state," said SPC coach Brett Hayman, who had watched his boys knock off Jesuit.
Smith won the first set at No. 5 singles but found herself down 5-3 in the second set. That's when she changed her strategy and started coming into net. Neal had two set points on her serve, but Smith fought back to get the break of serve. Smith held serve to tie the second set at 5-all and broke Neal's serve for the second time in a row to take a 6-5 advantage.
At deuce with the match on the line, Smith came up with two powerful serves to close out her opponent.
"I was beating myself, so I decided to go to the net," Smith said. "The net's my best game. I'm a fast runner. When I see the opportunity to get into the net, I go for it."
Tampa Catholic's Meghan Sullivan defeated Alyssa Bellini 6-4, 6-2 at No. 1 singles while her sister Kelly was a 6-0, 6-0 winner over the Barons' Macey Cook at No. 2 singles. The Sullivan sisters won the No. 1 doubles match by default.
SPC's Nickerson was a 6-0, 6-0 winner at No. 3 singles, and Molly Smith defeated her Tampa Catholic opponent 6-2, 6-0 at No. 4 singles.
Plant 4, Chamberlain 3: The match of the day was the No. 1 singles match between Plant's Amber Li and Chamberlain's Jaime Mera. The girls battled for three hours before Li captured won 6-3, 5-7, 6-3. During the second set, Mera fought off three match points.
"After the second set, I just told myself to calm down and continue to play my game," Li said.
Luckily for Plant, Li came back strong in the third set to get the win, as the Panthers won three out of five singles matches.
Other singles winners for Plant were Morgan Nolan over Mckenzie O'Brien in straight sets and Carol Fraley over Nicole Mera.
For Chamberlain, Jen Miller defeated Solange LaPuente and Mabry Fisher defeated Kristen Hurst, both in straight sets.
In doubles action Jamie Mera and Miller beat Li and LaPuente to pull Chamberlain even with Plant. The final result however went to Plant, as Fraley and Nolan took down Nicole Mera and O'Brien to send the Panthers to state.