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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Stingrays Defeat Diamondbacks for Girls USTA Spring Team Title; Eagles and Titans Play for Boys Title Wednesday

©Colette Lewis 2018—
Mobile AL—

The Stingrays, left to right: Coach Mariel Tinnirello, Catherine Broerman, Makayla Mills, Savanna Kollock, Katherine Wurster, Ivana Corley, Jessi Muljat

Jessi Muljat can attest to the difference one point makes.

Down match point at 4-5 in the third set of the first round of the USTA National Spring Team Championships the match that would decide which team would advance, Muljat saved it, and four matches later her team, the Stingrays, were the champions, earning a 4-3 victory over the Diamondbacks in Tuesday evening’s final.

“I can’t believe that just one point and we would have lost first round, we wouldn't be here,” said the 17-year-old from Sacramento California, who went on to take that game and the next two. “It was about a ten-ball rally and she hit an approach shot and came to the net. I hit a passing shot at her feet and she missed a volley. Following that, I hit a backhand down the line, around the net post winner to get a game point and it was the best shot of my entire life; I don’t even know how I hit it.”

Muljat, who played No. 2 18s singles, said that win catapulted the team forward, with two less dramatic victories preceding tonight’s final.

“We were all nervous in that first match,” said Muljat. “We weren’t playing our best tennis, and it just gave us so much confidence. It definitely took some pressure off and we believed in ourselves more after that.”

The final between the Stingrays and the Diamondbacks, which started in the late afternoon and finished under the Mobile Tennis Center lights due to morning rain, was close from the start.

The 18s doubles match went to the Stingray team of Muljat and Ivana Corley 6-1 over Lana Mavor and Callie Creath, but the point was decided in tiebreakers, with the Diamondbacks team of Priya Nelson and Madison Smith beating Savannah Kollock and Katherine Wurster 6-5(3) in the 14s. That left the point up to the 16s, with Makayla Mills and Catherine Broerman claiming it with a 6-5(2) win over Kelsey Mize and Jennifer Riester.

Diamondbacks coach Daniel Caballero Valcarcel would have liked to start the singles with a lead.

“Definitely coming from a point down was difficult,” Caballero said. “We knew their 18s were tough. But in the end they played better. I’m really proud of the team; they fought. The tiebreaks were really close. But in the end, I told them you don’t lose the final. You just win second place.”

In singles, each team won three first sets, with the Diamondbacks winning the first point to tie it, with Nelson beating Kollock 6-1, 6-2 at No. 1 14s.  At No. 1 18s, the Stingrays’ Corley saved a set point with a backhand winner at 3-5 in her match with Mavor, taking the final four games of the match for a 6-2, 7-5 win and a 2-1 Stingrays lead. Muljat made it 3-1, beating Creath 7-5, 6-1 at No. 2 18s, but the Diamondbacks posted the next point, with Rieister beating Broerman 6-3, 7-5 at No. 2 16s. After Riester’s win, the Stingrays’ Wurster earned a match point in her second set tiebreaker with Smith at No. 2 14s, but Smith saved it and won the tiebreaker, meaning that all attention went to another second set tiebreaker between the Stingrays’ Mills and Diamondbacks’ Mize at No. 1 16s.  Mize had served for the second set at 5-4, but Mills came back to force a tiebreaker.  She fell behind 4-1 in the tiebreaker, but Mize double faulted twice in the late stages, then made an unforced error to give Mills two match points. Mills clinched the team title with her sixth straight point, with Mize missing a return to hand Mills the 6-2, 7-6(4) win.  Smith went on to beat Wurster 5-7, 7-6(8), 6-1 to make the final score 4-3, but by then Mills had already been mobbed by her four other teammates.

“It's my first time playing this event and it’s one of the best feelings I’ve had,” said Mills, a 16-year-old from Wilmington North Carolina. “Being able to win the match which won the match for my team. They were right behind me (outside the fence) and I was thinking, play this point, and when I won it, I was so happy and I turned around and they were all there. It was a group hug, and it was the best feeling."

Stingrays coach Mariel Tinnirello, like both Muljat and Mills, are participating in the event, now in its fifth year, for the first time, but that lack of experience never fazed them, at least not when it mattered most.

"They were all pretty nervous," said Tinnirello, who is a coach at Newk's Tennis Academy in Texas. "It was probably one of our shakiest doubles. The 18s did really well but the 16s and 14s, it was one of their most nervous performances. I think because we sat around all day, waiting to play. But winning that doubles point kind of made them relax and we came out stronger in singles."

Tinnirello, who played college tennis at Idaho and then went on to serve as assistant coach there, enjoys coaching at team events.

"I definitely want to come back next year," Tinnirello said. "It was an awesome experience for me. I was an assistant coach after I graduated and I loved it, but I hadn't really done any of that until this year. I think we had a really good team; we were really close to each other, hanging out a lot off the court as well. It was a lot of fun."

The boys final will take place on Wednesday morning, after the Titans and the Eagles advanced in contrasting fashion Tuesday afternoon.

The doubles points for the semifinals were played on Monday afternoon in order to get a jump on the predicted rain, with the Titans and the Seahawks leading 1-0 heading into Tuesday's six singles matches.  The Titans, who had won a squeaker of a doubles point, saving a match point in the tiebreaker at 18s doubles, kept their momentum overnight, methodically taking down the Broncos 6-1.

Titans coach Jason Kinder said doubles has been a focus of his team throughout the tournament.

"What's stood out is how important the doubles point is," said Kinder, who coaches at the Atlantic Coach Tennis Club in Richmond, Virginia. "Even though we haven't had much practice, a lot of our practice has been geared towards doubles and being better doubles players, because that takes a little pressure off in singles."

The Titans, who had dominated in singles in the first and second round, winning 5-2 and 6-1, continued that theme Tuesday, with Patrick Fletchall at No. 1 18s, Andrew Dale at No. 2 18s and Jeremie Casabon at No. 1 16s getting straight sets wins to clinch the match.  Dillon Blake, at No. 2 16s, and Braden Shick, at No. 1 14s, made it 6-0 Titans before Waleed Qadir salvaged a point for the Broncos at No. 2 14s.

Kinder, who is coaching in this tournament for the first time, said he will focus on the physical side of preparation for Wednesday's final, while also emphasize a break from thinking about tennis.

"We're going to hydrate, we're going to roll, we're going to work on our bodies," Kinder said. "My guys are fit and haven't complained one bit about any aches and pains. I want them to get rest tonight, but make sure to do something fun, something they want to do, to stay fresh in their mind. But fitness is such a big part of the game now."

While the Titans have not needed to come up with any last-match-on heroics, the Eagles are well versed in that pressure, with all three of their wins of that variety.  Today's victory over the Seahawks was no different, with the Eagles coming back from dropping the doubles point to post four singles wins, with Michael Sun clinching for his team at No. 1 18s.

The Eagles took five first sets in singles to put the Seahawks on the defensive, and three Eagles posted straight-sets victories. Alexander Chang, who had clinched the last match on in the first round at No. 2 14s, earned their first point, and Riley Odell, who had clinched the last match on in the second round at No. 2 16s, made it 2-1 Eagles.  But the Seahawks answered with Zachery Lin's victory at No. 1 16s to tie it at 2.  The Eagles took a 3-2 lead with John Lasanajak's win at No. 1 14s, but the Seahawks' Maxwell Giddens tied it with a 2-6, 6-1, 6-2 win over Maxwell McKennon at No. 2 18s.  That left it up to Sun, who was playing 15-year-old Marcus McDaniel.

It looked dire for Sun when he fell behind 3-0 and two breaks in the third set, but he won the final six games of the match from a tired looking McDaniel to seal a 7-5, 6-7(3), 6-3 victory and a place in the final for his team.

Eagles coach Ron Dyson was a calming presence for Sun when every shot seemed to sail on him early in the third set.

"We go back and we fight, one point at a time, and we truly believe in ourselves," said Dyson, who coaches in Rochester New York. "I told him, if I believe in you, you have to believe in you. I told him we had the right man in the right spot. He was our captain, our leader, our No. 1 18s player. So if he believes, we've got his back."

Dyson said he was confident in his team from the beginning.

"I told them if they kept doing what they were doing something special would happen," said Dyson, who is also coaching in the tournament for the first time this year. "This is great development, great experience and they should really be excited about doing something like this. This is what you want to see them doing, playing with great passion, with sportsmanship and having fun. These guys epitomize having fun, and I'm having a great time doing this."

The boys final is scheduled for an 8:30 a.m. start, with doubles followed by singles.