Girls tennis: Stevenson's Blass nets NSC crown

Stevenson sophomore Emma Blass didn't start playing tennis until she was 11.

That's akin to a future doctor applying to med schools at the age of 40.

Or a Leonardo da Vinci wannabe picking up a paintbrush for the first time after blowing out 50 birthday candles.

Blass, a former Chicagoan, got a late start on the courts. But the quick learner played lights-out tennis Saturday en route to winning the No. 1 singles title at the North Suburban Conference girls tennis tournament in Vernon Hills and Lake Forest.

Blass edged Libertyville freshman Yuki Dogadalski 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 in a semifinal - avenging a pair of losses this fall - and then won via default in the final over Lake Forest senior and two-time state doubles champion Isabelle Chong.

"I tried tennis and liked it right away," said Blass, a humble, down-to-earth Patriot who admires rising professional tennis superstar Carlos Alcarez "because he's happy all the time and he's inspirational to so many people."

Blass trailed Dogadalski 5-4 in the third set and survived a multi-deuce game at 5-5. Both talented netters like to angle winners from the baseline, and Blass isn't afraid to blast away when the opportunity arises.

"Yuki is very good at getting everything back," Blass said. "I tried to break her rhythm at times by being aggressive on short balls. And I kept telling myself, since I'd lost to her twice, 'You have nothing to lose.' "

Stevenson entrants reached all seven finals of the brackets (3 singles and 4 doubles flights) and lost only one of them. Yuki's older sister, junior Lena Dogadalski, defeated Stevenson freshman Medha Veerathu 6-1, 6-0 at No. 2 singles.

Coach Izzy Balase's Patriots amassed 54 points and captured the program's third straight conference championship and 10th in 13 years.

"Emma was resilient, just like the rest of the team was," Balase said. "They had to deal with rain on Friday (it interrupted some matches) and with wind and chilly temperatures (on Saturday). What impressed me the most about Emma was her ability to shift from patience to aggressiveness during points. There was no pressure on her. She played freely and confidently.

"Everybody," he continued, "stayed resilient, stayed tough."

Lake Forest (39 points) finished runner-up at the eight-team tourney, followed by Libertyville (38), Warren (29), Lake Zurich (19), Mundelein (11), Zion-Benton (10) and Waukegan (3).

Stevenson's other flight champions were Maggie Kuang (No. 3 singles), Sarah Wang/Abby Ma (No. 1 doubles), Ana Sukovic/Sophia Shlyakhta (No. 2 doubles), Carolyn Ryan/Sona Surya (No. 3 doubles) and Mariia Berezovchuk/Molly Hayden (No. 4 doubles).

Penn-bound Wang, the reigning two-time Class 2A singles champ, has been playing doubles all fall.

"Competing in doubles has allowed Sarah to be more creative as a tennis player," Balase said, adding nothing thrills a college tennis coach more than welcoming a netter who excels in singles and doubles. "Singles players use patterns, with the outstanding ones, like Sarah, able to outlast opponents. You'll never see a specific pattern in doubles, and the points usually end much more quickly than they do in singles."

Libertyville's top duo, seniors and 2022 state doubles qualifiers Taya Breslow and Hadley Warren, forced a third set in the final vs. Wang/Ma when Warren punched a well-placed volley to the edge of an alley; Breslow had struck a clean volley winner to the other alley earlier in the game.

Stevenson's pair regrouped and notched a 6-2, 4-6, 6-0 victory.

"They're more motivated this year, and they know each other better," Libertyville coach Dan Kiernan said of Breslow/Warren, who silvered at the Bloomington invite and finished fourth in a 16-team, No. 1 doubles field at the Prospect invite.

"They're both in a good place now," he added.

Libertyville's Dakota Olson finished runner-up at No. 3 singles. The Wildcats' pairs of Emma Zaengle/Kendall Brooks (No. 2), Laura Gonzalez Kompalic/Isabel Tepper (No. 3) and Mina Donovan/Lane Sundberg (No. 4) took third, fourth and fourth, respectively.

Warren's Blue Devils avenged some regular-season setbacks on their way to six top-four efforts. Olivia Zamora/Kim Strathman (No. 3 doubles) and Felicia Anwar/Lizzie Dabney (No. 4 doubles) bronzed while Macee Morawiecki (No. 1 singles), Peyton Mueller (No. 2 singles), Anastasia Radovic/Kamila Dobija (No. 1 doubles) and Sadie Sutz/Ellie Kreamer (No. 2 doubles) fell in third-place matches.

"Great tournament," Warren coach Vince DeSecki said. "We showed up and competed well. I'm especially happy for (seniors) Olivia and Kim, because they won the last match of their high school careers. Not too many get to say that."

Warren hosts an NSC-laden sectional next weekend, with each team fielding two singles and two doubles entrants. Other schools in the field include Stevenson, Lake Forest, Libertyville and Mundelein.

Lake Zurich vies for 2A state berths at the Cary-Grove sectional.

LZ's Bears - battling without injured ace Katrine Boianov - received a fourth-place finish from Jane Langefeld (No. 3 singles) at the NSC tournament.

No joshing: First-year Lake Forest girls tennis coach Josh Rabjohns succeeded Denise Murphy, who guided the Scouts to state championships in 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2019. Rabjohns' daughters, former LF standouts Kiley and Autumn, rip winners for Northwestern University's women's tennis team these days. Kiley - the 2A state singles champ in 2018 and '19 - is a junior, two years older than Autumn, who finished runner-up to Stevenson's Sarah Wang in the 2021 2A state singles final.

Coach Rabjohns' Scouts earned seven top-three finishes at Saturday's seven-flight NSC tournament.

  Stevenson's Emma Blass returns the ball during her singles match against Libertyville's Uki Dogadalski during the North Suburban Conference girls tennis tournament at the west campus of Lake Forest High School Saturday. Joe Lewnard/
  Libertyville's Uki Dogadalski returns the ball during her singles match against Stevenson's Emma Blass during the North Suburban Conference girls tennis tournament at the west campus of Lake Forest High School Saturday. Joe Lewnard/
  Libertyville's Uki Dogadalski returns the ball during her singles match against Stevenson's Emma Blass during the North Suburban Conference girls tennis tournament at the west campus of Lake Forest High School Saturday. Joe Lewnard/
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