A player that came a set short of reaching state a year ago and a doubles team built for a multi-year run begin what they hope is a multi-day stay at the state tennis tournament Thursday morning.
Charleston singles player Rachel Thomas and the Mattoon doubles duo of Emily Stortzum and Tess Huene entered the double-elimination Class 1A state tournament in Buffalo Grove without top-16 seeds in their respective events, but on an upward trend after each clinched a spot at state with a day to spare at sectionals and won Apollo titles. Thomas plays Marrie Blankenburger of Carmi-White County, while Stortzum and Huene face the doubles duo from Chicago’s Latin School, the No. 16 seed.
Both began their season with real state aspirations and expectations. Stortzum tagged along to last year’s state final to watch teammate Kyah Eastin, who she took over for as Mattoon’s No. 1 singles player and was expected to give Mattoon its best shot at getting back. When Mattoon coach Dwight Perry and assistant Joey Boyer met before the year to determine lineups and pairings, though, they concluded putting Stortzum and Huene on the doubles team was perhaps their best chance at getting out of that sectional and onto state. Furthermore, both were juniors, setting up a potential back-to-back state spots if they grabbed one this year and kept improving into their senior year.
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They rode their improved chemistry all year. They lost to the Casey-Westfield doubles duo of Eva Richardson and Gwendalyn Eckerty in their fifth match of the season in a tiebreaker set. Saturday, they beat them to take third place in the sectional.
“They’re more determined,” Perry said. “We’re still learning and trying to cut down on unforced errors, playing smarter. They know that too. But they’re used to playing with each other.”
The win that got them there is just as impressive, a tiebreaker victory over Teutopolis’ No. 2 doubles team on the first day of sectionals. They fell behind 3-0 in the first set, but came back and won it. They lost the second before winning in a tiebreaker.
“We’re not coming up here thinking we’re outclassed,” Perry said. “It’s not like we’re going to roll over.”
Thomas, after losing a set with a state appearance at stake at last year’s St. Anthony sectional, pushed through this year and secured fourth. Realistically, the top two spots were all but locked up. St. Anthony’s Emilee Mossman is the No. 5 seed, while Newton’s Jacelyn Street is No. 11. Thomas and everyone else were gunning for the other two, and she cemented herself among the best of the rest in one of the tougher downstate sectionals the last two years and an early candidate to potentially win it as a senior next year.
But first, she has a state final to play.
“She worked all season to get that No. 4 spot,” Charleston coach Eric Selstad said. “She’s just got to keep taking risks when they make sense and hitting hard.”
Contact Patrick Engel at 217-238-6856. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickEngel_