St. Charles North coach Sean Masoncup and St. Charles East coach Rob Livermore believed their boys tennis teams were evenly matched going into Thursday's crosstown clash at East.
Little did they realize just how even they would be.
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The outcome of North and East's Upstate Eight Conference River Division showdown came down to the final point of the last match of the meet. When North's No. 2 doubles team of Mitch Riggs and Keith Hedges won a tense third-set tiebreaker 7-6 (7-5) over East's Colin Jones and Connor Anderson, the North Stars mobbed their victorious teammates and celebrated as if they'd captured the state title after earning a riveting 4-3 victory.
The Saints' Chris Horn and Stefan Cvarkovic tied the team score at 3-3 after edging North's Trevor Kurtzhals and Luke Dunteman 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) at fourth doubles, making the second doubles duel the meet's deciding match. Anderson and Jones lost the first set 6-2 but rallied to win the second set 7-6 (7-4) to force a third set.
Like the Saints and North Stars' teams as a whole, neither doubles duo could gain separation in the decisive set until Hedges and Riggs delivered just enough key points to claim the third-set tiebreaker and clinch the meet in North's favor.
"Those were some great pressure cooker moments, with both teams experiencing success today," Livermore said. "We're looking forward to playing them again at the conference meet."
North and East are both off to fast starts this season. The North Stars remained unbeaten at 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the UEC River, while the Saints are now 7-2 and 1-1.
Livermore and Masoncup came away convinced that their teams have at least an outside shot at dethroning defending champion Batavia for the River Division title at next month's conference tournament. The Bulldogs, who return their entire starting lineup from 2013, nipped the North Stars by one point to secure last year's UEC River crown. The Saints finished third but returned the area's top player, Jasper Koenen, to their lineup at No. 1 singles. Koenen placed fourth at the 2013 state meet.
Koenen got East off to an early edge Thursday by beating North's Matt Ernst 6-0, 6-1, but North sophomore Matt Kramer gave his club a key victory when he defeated East senior Matt McCarthy 6-3, 6-2 at No. 2 singles. Kramer held his serve in both sets and frustrated McCarthy with a conservative approach focused on "just keeping the ball in the court," Kramer said afterwards. "I stressed consistency over big shots. I used a lot of topspin on my groundstrokes and tried to keep the ball in play and try to let my opponent make the mistakes."
East ended up with the upper hand in singles action when Nick Stellon outlasted junior Tom Ninan 7-6 (7-4), 6-4 at third singles. The sophomore first-year varsity player saw a 5-1 first-set lead evaporate before regaining his composure in the tiebreaker, then put the match away in the second set. Stellon enjoyed his first taste of the North-East varsity tennis rivalry.
"East's coaches ingrain the rivalry in you from your freshman year on," Stellon said. "You can feel the intensity go up when you play them. It's fun to brag to my North friends whenever we win."
North's primary strength so far this season has been its doubles play, and the North Stars rode their veteran doubles teams, led by five seniors and a junior state qualifier, to victory on Thursday, winning three of the four matches. Seniors Brady Goldsworthy and Peter O'Brien swept senior Steven Waynick and sophomore Zachary Crane 6-3, 6-3 at third doubles, and senior Grant Spellman and junior Aaron Amburgey knocked off senior George Spoerl and sophomore Alex Winters 6-2, 6-2 at first doubles.
Despite being new doubles partners, Amburgey and Spellman improved to 7-0 on the season and are brimming with confidence after winning the first doubles title at the 17-team Bloomington Invitational on Saturday.
"It's hard for me to set goals yet, not having seen state here in Illinois yet," said Amburgey, a transfer from Kentucky who qualified for Kentucky's state meet in doubles as a freshman and sophomore. "But Grant thinks we can win the conference and sectional and reach the quarterfinals at state, so I'm right there with him. I'm having a lot of fun. My team here (at North) is more like a basketball and football team. In Kentucky, we were more individually focused. Here, we support each other during matches and cheer each other on, and we focus more on helping each other be successful as a team. I'm enjoying it."
Thursday's team victory capped an impressive week for North. The North Stars tied Metamora for the title at last Saturday's Bloomington Invitational.
"It was a huge accomplishment for our program," Masoncup said. "It was our first title at this tournament. It has some of the top downstate teams in the state, like Metamora, who was a top 10 team at state last year. We had finished third the last three years, so to win it and in the fashion we did was awesome. I was very proud of all the guys this past weekend."
East and North will both be busy this Saturday. The Saints will look to defend their title at the Geneva Invitational, where Koenen's singles championship lifted East to a first-place tie for the team crown.
The North Stars will battle Shepard, Argo and Lincoln-Way North at the St. Charles North Quad. North took second at last year's quad while missing five players due to the ACT. North should have a full roster available this time around.