West Aurora senior Emily Stefancic had won first-round matches and played on the second day of the girls state tennis tournament in her three previous appearances.
But the Northern Illinois-bound Stefancic had never put together the right combination of both to play in the championship round of 16. That changed Thursday as Stefancic, a 17-32 seed, won all three of her matches in straight sets at Palatine.
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"She played well and she played smart tennis," said West Aurora coach Baili Hernandez.
"I am very excited and I've worked very, very hard for this," Stefancic said. "It's wonderful to see all my hard work pay off because this is something I wanted to do for a long time. It's been quite a ride and I'm looking forward to great things the rest of the way."
The ride will resume at 9 a.m. today at Hersey in Arlington Heights when Stefancic faces 9-16 seed Carol Finke of New Trier. The winner advances to the quarterfinals today at Buffalo Grove.
Batavia's doubles team of Jenny Mizikar and Amelia Cogan almost made it to the Round of 16 as well. But the 17-32 seed suffered a heartbreaking 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 7-6 (7-3) third-round loss to 5-8 seed Mallory Albert and Megan LaRose of Edwardsville.
The only drama for Stefancic came when she had to rally in the first set of her 7-5, 6-0 win in the third round over McKenna Byrne of Timothy Christian. Glenbrook South's Caroline Ryba, who was in their bracket as the 5-8 seed, defaulted out of the tournament.
"The mental factor came into play with both of us," Stefancic said of seeing a 4-3 lead turn into a 5-4 deficit against Byrne. "After pulling out the first set she realized I wasn't going to give up easily.
"I felt more relaxed and confident. (The first set deficit) got me a little nervous and a little scared, but I pulled it out and didn't look back from there."
Stefancic won first-round matches as a freshman and sophomore but didn't make it to the second day. Last year she went 4-2 after losing her opening match.
Now she's looking forward to playing Finke for the first time and trying to become West Aurora's first medalist since Megan Brooks and Lin Waterford took fourth in doubles in 2002. Michelle Matko was the program's last singles medalist when she was second in 1997.
"I want to keep aiming higher and try to see how far I can go," said Stefancic, whose only losses this season are to second-seeded Tiffany Chen of Naperville Central in a dual and for the DuPage Valley Conference title. "I want to go out with a bang."
Mizikar and Cogan (30-3) will try to bounce back in today's consolation fourth round when they play Neuqua Valley's Riti Vohra and Taylor Hershey at 8 a.m. at Rolling Meadows. Mizikar and Cogan led the first set of their third-round match with Edwardsville 5-4 and were up 5-3 in the tiebreaker, but they couldn't overcome giving up the first 5 points of the third-set tiebreaker.
"It was a great match ... they came out in the second set and played great," said Batavia coach Brad Nelson. "I was proud of the way the girls played. They played a 5-8 seed very tough and put themselves in position. They were playing very well and serving well and doing some good things at the net."
Mizikar and Cogan won their first match 6-3, 6-1 and didn't lose a game in their second match.
Geneva junior Kirby Einck, a 17-32 seed, is still alive in the backdraw after losing only 3 games in her first two matches before falling 6-2, 6-1 to 5-8 seed Lexie Petrovic of Nazareth in the third round. Einck plays Thornton Fractional South's Bryttish Burts today at Palatine.
Kaneland junior Samantha Schrepferma lost in three sets in the second round but won her next two matches to stay in the backdraw. Schrepferma plays Rock Island's Nicole Tyulpa today at Fremd.
The Kaneland junior duo of Angelica Emmanouil and Madison Jurcenko rebounded from a three-set first-round loss to win their next three matches. They'll play a fourth-round consolation match against Kelly and Maggie Ruane at Prospect.