After losing to Batavia by two agonizing points for the Upstate Eight Conference River Division boys tennis championship in 2012 and by one tantalizing point in 2013, St. Charles North couldn't wait to take the Bulldogs' home courts on Thursday for a pivotal UEC River dual meet with the two-time defending league champs.
Once they arrived, the North Stars played like a team on a mission, sweeping the four doubles matches and stealing one of the three singles matches to knock off Batavia 5-2.
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The victory kept the North Stars unbeaten in River Division duals at 5-0 and earned them a five-point lead over the Bulldogs in the league standings heading into the teams' final UEC duals of the season. On Tuesday North visits Geneva while Batavia heads to Larkin, followed by the conference tournament May 16 and 17 in Geneva.
Both teams expected Thursday's outcome to be decided at doubles, where North and Batavia feature two of the strongest doubles lineups in the area. North's four doubles teams boasted a combined 76-7 season record entering the meet, while Batavia's doubles squads were a nearly identical 72-7.
The North Stars surprised many observers by dominating doubles play, winning three of the four matches in straight sets and rallying for a 7-6 (7-2), 4-6, 6-2 victory at third doubles.
North coach Sean Masoncup summed up his doubles teams' success in the dual, and throughout the season, in one word.
"Aggressiveness. They've bought into our philosophy of being aggressive," Masoncup said. "We pride ourselves on taking advantage of opponents at the net, attacking the other team, going after every point and focusing on getting better instead of playing not to lose. If you lose a point or a match, it's life. It happens. Just play free and aggressive and try to get better each day. I'm really proud of them. Our goal was to go undefeated in conference. We did that. Now we have to keep improving every day. The conference tournament is a whole different animal."
Mitch Riggs and Keith Hedges propeled North (20-1 overall) to an early dual lead with a 6-1, 6-1 victory over Jeff Lorden and Josh Boyle at second doubles. Hedges and Riggs now own a 23-2 record as a first-year doubles duo.
Hedges was paired with Grant Spellman at first doubles in 2013, qualifying for the state meet and going 1-2 at state, while Riggs played second doubles. But the seniors are far from strangers.
"We've been friends since kindergarten growing up in the same neighborhood," Hedges said. "Our games complement each other. Mitch has good power and has length at the net. I try to serve first to complement his net game, and we've both got good hands at the net. We have high expectations for conference, sectionals and state. We have a good shot at winning the conference as a team and as a doubles team, and I'd like to see us win two matches at state."
Spellman and Aaron Amburgey, another new doubles pair this season, then defeated Batavia's Ryan Sterling and Adam Maris 6-2, 6-2 at first doubles.
Matt Kramer beat Drake Swift 6-2, 6-0 at second singles to move North within one win of capturing the dual, and Trevor Kurtzhals and Luke Dunteman clinched the meet for the North Stars when they surged past Nick Robinson and Gunnar Malm 6-2, 6-2 at fourth doubles.
Brady Goldsworthy and Peter O'Brien capped North's day with the three-set victory over Emerson Hinzy and Andrew Nelson at third doubles. O'Brien and Goldsworthy trailed 2-1 in the third set before breaking the Bulldogs' serve three times en route to the win.
"We got beat by a better team today," Batavia coach Brad Nelson said. "They had the better doubles teams. They executed better, had more energy and were more aggressive. North was hungry today. They came in with a purpose. They had something to prove today, and it showed in how they played."
The Bulldogs (17-3, 3-2 UEC River) were able to stay within striking range of North for much of the dual thanks to Tim Murat's 6-2, 6-1 victory over Matt Ernst at first singles and James Carr's 6-2, 6-3 win over Tom Ninan at third singles.
Murat, who won the conference second singles title last spring, improved to 18-5 at his new position facing the area's top singles competition, while Carr is now 11-7 playing a new position as well.
"James is hitting the ball well," Nelson said. "He's a very aggressive player, but he's figuring out how to control that part of his game better. Tim is playing great. He's an experienced player who knows what he's doing out there, understands the game very well. He hits the ball with heavy topspin, which gives a lot of guys trouble."
But Kramer, a sophomore, delivered a key victory at second singles that gave North insurance in case one of its doubles teams lost.
"I was pretty excited to face Batavia since they are the conference champs," Kramer said. "I'm learning a lot playing at a new position. It's my second year on the varsity, but I did fourth and third doubles last year. Today I kept my serves in and kept the pressure on my opponent by keeping the ball in play."
The North Stars continue preparing for the postseason on Friday and Saturday when they compete in the Naper-Valley Invitational, one of the most challenging regular-season tournaments in the state. North, which recently cracked the state's top 10 rankings, will square off with a field that includes four of the state's top five teams: Hinsdale Central, Downers Grove South, Oak Park-River Forest and downstate Edwardsville.
"I think a top-four finish as a team would be awesome with how loaded this tournament is," Masoncup said. "We have fared pretty well the last few years, finishing in the top half the last five seasons. Our three doubles entries are all seeded for the tournament. This will be a good test with state coming up."
The Bulldogs participate in the Warren Invitational for the first time on Saturday, where they'll play Larkin, Antioch and Warren in a two-singles, four-doubles format. A victory at Warren would give Batavia its fifth championship in five tournaments this season.
"No team in Batavia tennis history has accomplished that feat," Nelson said. "Warren is traditionally strong, so we are looking forward to some competitive matches."