CGA rallies for regional repeat versus Plymouth

CULVER — At some point in Wednesday’s regional tennis final, a major momentum shift occurred.
Plymouth was leading defending champion Culver Girls Academy on three courts at the Lady Eagles’ home at the Gable Tennis Complex, up a set on both doubles courts and at 2 singles. Even at 1 singles, where Allie Berger had dropped her first set to Natalia Lopez-Yanez 6-3, Berger was leading her CGA counterpart in the second set, and, for a moment, it seemed like the Lady Pilgrims might dethrone a Culver Girls Academy squad that has traditionally gotten the better of them and earn their program its first regional title since 2006.
But Lopez-Yanez battled back from a 5-1 deficit to put away Berger in straight sets with a 7-2 tiebreaker victory, notching the Eagles their second singles match point, 6-3, 7-6(2), Rachel Simon handed Mikayla German consecutive 6-1 defeats to trump the Plymouth junior in three, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1, and the Lady Eagles earned a repeat regional championship over Plymouth, 3-2.
“I talked to the girls after the match and I congratulated them and complimented them on a lot of things about their game, but it became very evident to me through this match and others that their strongest and best attribute is their willingness to never give up, never quit,” said CGA head coach Jeff Kutch. “They just fight to the end no matter what the score is. I really congratulated them on that aspect — their ability to not know how to quit.
“We’re just tickled to death at all our girls’ ability to endure and find a way. Again, they just don’t know what it means to quit.”
In what has become the conventional outcome between the rivals in recent years, CGA won on all three singles courts and Plymouth claimed dominance in the two doubles matches.
Emily Blake and Ellen Smith split sets with Kendall Whitehurst and Maria Solis before clinching a 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 win at 2 doubles, following up the Pilgrims’ first win of the night at 1 doubles, where Andria Shook and Marissa German beat Pita Navarro and Regina Padilla in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3 to remain unbeaten at their position and advance in the state doubles tournament.
Shook and German advanced individually to the finals at the LaPorte Doubles Regional last season before falling to eventual state champions Abigail and Vanessa Madrigal of Highland. They’ll play Northfield’s Leanne Beck and Alyssa Richter — who beat Columbia City’s Sydney Ford and Macie Hinen 7-6(5), 6-1 in individual play Wednesday night — tonight for the right to go back to this weekend’s LaPorte tourney.
“We’re going to get behind them and support them and keep working with them,” said Plymouth coach Brad Haeck. “They’ve got a goal of making it to state, and we’re going to do the best job we can of getting better and better.”
While Shook’s and German’s advancement in the doubles tourney was a decent consolation prize, it wasn’t the one the Pilgrims were hoping for at Gable Complex. And for a while, it seemed like Plymouth might finally get over the hump in the team’s first trip to the regional finals since 2010 against a CGA squad that has struggled with intermittent injuries throughout the year.
But Alena Arkhipov made short work of Carly Berger 6-2, 6-0 at 3 singles to salt away the defending champions’ first match point of the night, Lopez-Yanez responded from her early deep deficit to Allie Berger in the second set at 1 singles for a straight-set win there, and Simon — who has played at the 1 position periodically for her team while Lopez-Yanez struggled with on and off injuries throughout the year — simply found another gear to top Mikayla German in three sets, making the outcome on the 2 doubles court academic and earning the Eagles the repeat title and the right to advance opposite archival Penn at the LaPorte Semistate Saturday, when CGA will look to avenge last year’s semistate loss to the Kingsmen.
“It’s a great win for a lot of reasons for us,” said Kutch. “It’s been a tough season struggling through injuries and that sort of thing, so it really feels good, but it feels good to go up against an opponent as good as Plymouth and those girls and the way they fought so hard. For our team to be victorious over such a competent opponent makes it that much more exciting.
“Frankly, all this on a different day who knows? But today we were triumphant and very appreciative of that.”
With five seniors on this year’s team in the German twins, Shook, Blake and Allie Berger, and the squad making its first trip to the regional finals after being ousted in the first round of play at the tourney the past two seasons, Wednesday’s loss was a particularly bitter pill for the Pilgrims to end the team season on.
“I just feel bad for the seniors. They’ve put in a lot of work over four years, battled in a lot of matches. Got part of a conference championship, four sectional championships,” said Haeck.
“They left it all on the court tonight. I’m proud of how we all battled, especially the seniors. It’s a tough way to go out being short of a major goal that we have coming into the year every year. Give Culver credit, they played a great match.”
While Shook and Marissa German stayed alive in the doubles state tournament at Wednesday’s team finals, another area player, Bremen’s Morgan Smith beat out remained unbeaten in the singles tournament with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Wawasee’s Ester Herman.
Smith jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first set but left the door open for Herman, who tied it back up 3-all. The Lady Lions junior took the next four games to go up a set, however, and after taking a slim 3-2 lead in the second set, she closed out the match in similar fashion with four straight games and a CGA Singles Sectional championship berth today against Columbia City’s Celine Rongos, a Huntington University signee who eliminated North Judson’s Jordan Frasure in two 6-1 sets at Tuesday’s tourney opener.
“It really was just back and forth and Morgan stuck with it, and I’m very proud of her for that,” said Bremen tennis coach Andrew Rohde of his No. 1.
“She was a really hard player and it was a good match, but I think my serve was really going for me today,” said Smith. “The return of serve was kind of rough, but I got it back towards the end, and my strokes were going pretty well.”
Wednesday’s individual sectional match was nothing terribly new for Smith, who advanced to the LaPorte Regional as an individual last year, ultimately falling 6-1, 6-4 to Angola’s Marina Fernandez to close out her sophomore season. Smith said that experienced helped keep her calm early against Herman.
“It definitely has helped me. I was still nervous, but I didn’t have all the jitters of my first time being here not knowing what it was like,” she said. “Now I kind of know what the layout is and what was going to happen.”
In one interesting subplot to the Smith-Herman match, the Wawasee No. 1 is a foreign exchange student who hails from, of all places, Bremen, Germany.
“Kind of ironic. Kind of a neat thing,” said Rohde. “We have a German foreign exchange student as well so I know they got to talk a little bit afterward, so it was kind of nice. I know our other girl on the team thought that was so cool.”
at Culver Academies
Singles: 1. Natalia Lopez-Yanez (CGA) beat Allie Berger 6-3, 7-6(2); 2. Rachel Simon (CGA) beat Mikayla German 4-6, 6-1, 6-1; 3. Alena Arkhipov (CGA) beat Carly Berger 6-2, 6-0.
Doubles: 1. Andria Shook-Marissa German (P) beat Pita Navarro-Regina Padilla 6-4, 6-3; 2. Emily Blake-Ellen Smith (P) beat Kendall Whitehurst-Maria Solis 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.
Records: CGA 11-4, Plymouth 15-5.
Singles: Morgan Smith (Bremen) beat Ester Herman (Wawasee), 6-3, 6-2.
Doubles: Leanne Beck-Alyssa Richter (Northfield) beat Sydney Ford-Macie Hinen (Columbia City) 7-6(5), 6-1.