PAWTUCKET – It is said there is a first time for everything.
For the Narragansett girls tennis team, it earned its first ever shot at a state title when it beat Westerly 4-2 last Thursday to advance to the RIIL Division II Championship match Saturday at Slater Park and the Mariners didn’t waste the opportunity.
Standing in their way was an undefeated Toll Gate team that had beaten Narragansett 4-3 just nine days earlier on the final day of the regular season. The Titans, however, were not as fortunate the second time around as the Mariners pulled off the upset in a thrilling, 4-2 marathon victory to take home the title.
“It’s new,” said Mariners coach Peter Barlow. “Never did it myself in high school, so it’s a vicarious experience.
“…First time [in team history making it to] the finals, I think, so to get here we’re very happy, but once you get here you might as well try and finish.”
Based on their first bout with the Titans, the Mariners knew they were in for a lengthy battle with the tournament’s top seed.
The match fit the bill with most sets tight and four of the seven matches going the distance.
The day became even longer as Narragansett fell behind early when Kristen Gershkoff fell quickly in straight sets at No. 3 singles to give Toll Gate a 1-0 lead.
The Mariners’ No. 3 doubles team of MacKenzie Page and Sarah Hoxsie, however, backed-up their singles counterpart with a similar straight sets victory over Anna-Rose Pearson and Addie Lamothe to get the overall match back to even. Narragansett then won their first big swing point of the day when Olivia Scalora took the win at No. 1 singles.
The Mariners’ co-captain had dropped her regular season match to Toll Gate’s Caroline Waggoner 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 and had fallen behind in the first set of her playoff match 2-3 before setting out on her comeback. Scalora won the next four games en route to winning the first set 6-3 before taking the second convincingly for the straight sets win and a 2-1 match lead.
With momentum starting to turn in ’Gansett’s favor, Toll Gate’s top doubles team of Jen Schaad and Jackie Falso stopped the match from getting away from the Titans. After dropping their regular season match to Kara Heatherton and Maddie Gilbert, Schaad and Falso looked as though they may suffer a similar fate when they were unable to close out a 5-2 second set lead as Narragansett’s top duo forced a decisive third set.
Heatherton and Gilbert took the first game of the third set, but Schaad and Falso collected themselves and went on to win the set 6-3, bringing the overall score to 2-2. As Heatherton and Gilbert’s match drew to a close, just one court over the state finals drama began to mount in the No. 2 doubles match.
Ashley Kennedy and Brooke McGreen won their first set, but were buried in their second, 6-1, as Toll Gate’s Laurel Ten Eyck and Abby Ellis looked to repeat their three-set win from the regular season in decisive fashion.
McGreen and Kennedy, however, were not about to go quietly. The ’Gansett duo took the first two games of the third, but it was the last time the set saw a two-game lead. The Titans took the next two games and both sides battled back-and-forth throughout the set.
The Mariners found themselves with their backs against the wall at 6-5, but survived to win the crucial 12th game and force a tiebreak.
“They had six match points before they won it,” Barlow said. “They had five or six match points, got back to even, they had a match point against them. That’s when as a coach you turn away and go watch another match because you’d rather be told about it than see that.”
The tiebreak was no easier. With McGreen and Kennedy once again facing a match point at 6-5, Toll Gate double faulted to give Narragansett new life. The Mariner duo then had match points of their own at 7-6 and 8-7, but could not close out and put a shot long two points later to fall behind 9-8. McGreen and Kennedy persisted, however, taking the next two points and forcing Toll Gate into an error on the third for an 11-9 win in the tiebreak to put Narragansett within one win of the state title.
With the overall score at 3-2, all eyes shifted to the remaining two matches still in play as both Eily Sullivan and Mariana Sanchez were in their third sets.
When McGreen and Kennedy’s match ended, Sanchez looked to be the Mariners’ best hope for a title at No. 4 singles, holding a 2-0 lead in the third set after winning a tiebreak of her own in the second, while Sullivan was struggling at No. 2 singles, trailing 4-1 in her first three set match of the year.
As the lights came on at Slater Park and the pressure of winning a state title fell on her, the junior found new life though.
“I think that when everyone started cheering and came over, I realized that it was down to the wire,” Sullivan said. “Then I got motivated and realized I had to start playing my own game instead of hesitating a little bit.”
Facing Toll Gate’s Arianna Rizzo, Sullivan held on for a 7-5 win in the first set after nearly letting a 4-1 lead slip away and trailed much of the way during a 6-4 loss in the second. The Mariners’ No. 2 then dropped the first three games of the decisive set before starting to get back on track. Trailing 4-1, Sullivan rallied for three straight to tie the set 4-4.
As Sullivan rallied, however, Sanchez began to fade, putting the onus on Narragansett’s No. 2. Sullivan fell behind again at 5-4, but held and then broke serve for the 6-5 lead, putting ’Gansett four points from the state title. Rizzo threatened in the next game, but Sullivan held serve again and it was game, set, match, title for the Mariners.
“Very improbable ending,” Barlow said. “If you said of all the matches that would still be out there, I would say, ‘No, it’s not going to happen.’ Eily beat her last time two-and-two, so you figure that girl had a bad day or Eily had a great day.
“She went from beating her two-and-two to being down [4-1] in the third, but if there’s any kid on the team I would put my money on to come back, that’s her. She’s a real competitor, very composed, mature beyond her years.
“…There’s no bigger stage for high school tennis than right here with the lights on, the last match of the season for everyone in Rhode Island, she’s down [4-1] and she comes back. It’s exceptional.”
“It feels exciting,” said Sullivan. “It wasn’t expected at the beginning of the season, but this is a great feeling.”
For the Mariners, it was a fitting end to a seemingly improbable run throughout the playoffs.
With a completely remade roster coming into the fall, Narragansett finished the regular season 10-2 and in third place in Division II Suburban B. Their only two loses of the year came against the two teams that stood in the way of their first state title, both 4-3 losses to Westerly and Toll Gate.
“It was just a great season,” said Barlow. “…It’s a great group of young ladies. The town should be very proud. The high school should be very proud of these kids.
“We’re proud of them, too.”