CHAMPAIGN — An awkward realization swept across Maddy Swisher mere seconds after she celebrated Ashley Mills’ victory during Saturday’s Class 1A Champaign Central Sectional singles semifinals.
The St. Thomas More girls’ tennis teammates would have to play each other in the singles championship match.
One would be the sectional titlist.
The other a runner-up.
“We had joked about it (Friday) on the way here before anything had started,” Swisher said. “And then as (Mills) progressed — she did so good, had such hard matches and she won them all. And then it was funny, and then it was like, ‘Oh, I have to beat my own teammate to win the sectional.’”
Both Swisher, a sophomore, and Mills, a senior, managed to set aside those emotions. But it ultimately was Swisher’s day to rise to the top.
The defending News-Gazette co-Player of the Year topped Mills 6-1, 6-0 to claim her first sectional singles crown. It came one year after Swisher and now-graduated Noelle Schacht won a sectional doubles championship, and Schacht was on hand at Lindsay Courts on Saturday for Swisher’s latest achievement.
“I’m super excited,” Swisher said while wiping away a few happy tears. “It was kind of rough having to play my own teammate in the finals, definitely. But we both kind of got what we wanted, and it was a lot of fun.”
This was the expectation for Swisher. She was seeded first in the singles draw and garnered a double bye on Friday as a result.
Mills’ path to the final couldn’t have been more different. Seeded sixth, she needed a pair of three-set victories — falling in the first set both times — to earn her berth in the championship match. The second of those rallies came earlier Saturday, when Mills outlasted Champaign Central junior Alexis Jones 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 in a nearly two-hour semifinal match.
“My two matches were really tough,” Mills said. “I was just grinding through them in order to make it to the finals. I knew it’d be fun if it was me and Maddy playing in the finals.”
Mills also described the moment as bittersweet, but there was a good payoff for Mills in defeat.
The Sabers also acquired their second consecutive team sectional plaque by scoring 28 points, outpacing second-place Maroa-Forsyth’s 19.
“That means so much,” Mills said. “My freshman year we won sectionals, so out of my four years I won three sectionals. ... We had so many girls (on the team) this season, and they’re all my family now.”
Providing heavily to STM’s point total was the doubles pairing of juniors Nora Kelley and Audrey Horn. Like Mills in singles, the duo was seeded sixth in the doubles bracket.
Kelley and Horn lost their first set Friday before proceeding to win each of their next eight, including the 6-4, 6-1 victory in the championship match versus Maroa-Forsyth’s Rabya Hasnain and Madison Wang.
Kelley and Horn trumped both the fourth seed and the top seed over the course of four matches to secure the sectional title.
“We’ve been working for this extremely hard,” Horn said, “and I think we both just played the best tennis we could over the past several days.”
“And we get along super well, too,” Kelley added. “We’ve been playing for three years now, so just building that relationship over the years has strengthened us as a doubles team.”
What elements of each girl’s game allows this duo to click?
“Nora is definitely better at the net, and I think I’m better back,” Horn started.
“You were playing really well at the net (Saturday),” Kelley chipped in with a laugh.
The sectional didn’t belong entirely to the Sabers despite their dominant performance.
Schlarman freshman Maya Jenny immediately put the first-year Hilltoppers program on the map by placing third in singles. She stumbled against Swisher, with Swisher winning 6-1, 6-3 in the semifinals before Jenny fended off Jones 6-2, 6-3 in the third-place match.
“It was a cool experience, and I’m glad I won,” Jenny said. “I played very well, and I’m proud of myself.”
When it was pointed out that Jenny was not only the lone Schlarman athlete competing Saturday but also the only Vermilion County-based player remaining in the sectional, Jenny seemed a bit surprised.
“That’s amazing. I like it,” Jenny said. “It’s a cool idea to think about.”
The host Maroons garnered Jones’ fourth-place finish and a similar outcome from the doubles grouping of freshman Mariclare O’Gorman and junior Claudia Larrison, who lost 6-3, 6-3 to Maroa-Forsyth’s Mavis Wang and Serena Tuan in the third-place match.
O’Gorman and Larrison won the first set of their semifinal with Maroa-Forsyth’s Hasnain and Madison Wang but couldn’t close the door in a marathon 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 setback. The bout lasted even longer than that of Mills and Jones, stretching toward the 2-hour, 30-minute mark.