COLUMBIA — The top two doubles teams on the Rock Bridge boys tennis team play each other in practice all the time, but when they played Monday there was a lot more on the line.
The Bruins’ top team of senior Jay Kinderknecht and junior Eemaun Latifi defeated fellow Bruins sophomore Blake Buchert and freshman Aaron Skinner 6-4. 6-4 in the final of the Class 2, District 5 tournament at Rock Bridge. Both teams qualified for the individual state tournament.
On Saturday, rain early in the semifinal round forced the tournament to be completed Monday. Buchert and Skinner were trailing 4-2 in the first set of their semifinal against the Helias team of Michael LeRoy and Tony Stephenson when play restarted. Buchert and Skinner won five straight games two different times to win the match 7-5, 6-3. Rock Bridge coach Ben Loeb called it the feature match of the tournament.
Kinderknecht and Latifi defeated the Hickman team of junior Alex Turner and senior Sang Chung 6-1, 6-2 to set the stage for an all-Rock Bridge final.
Despite being teammates and friends, the final was not a friendly affair. The intensity from the Rock Bridge players was greater than most of their dual matches. By making the finals, both teams had already locked up spots in the state tournament, but seeding and bragging rights were on the line.
Both teams agreed the match started out with a relatively relaxed atmosphere, but that didn’t last long.
“After a while, it was like, ‘OK, let’s beat Jay and Eemaun,’” Buchert said. “It was more about bragging rights.”
The familiarity with each other was obvious. The teams occasionally exchanged words at changeovers and complimented each other on good shots. However, they still got visibly upset after missing certain shots and once the match was over, Buchert, in frustration, threw a tennis ball against the fence.
The two teams sat in silence on their benches for about a minute after it was over before Kinderknecht broke the silence.
“Hopefully we’ll play you guys in the (state) championship,” Kinderknecht said.
Loeb was obviously pleased with how the Bruins performed.
“It means we’ve done a lot of things right,” Loeb said about having his two doubles teams make it to the final.
It didn’t take long for Buchert and Skinner to put their disappointment aside. Buchert sat by Kinderknecht and Latifi while senior Aron Franck battled Jefferson City sophomore Ryan Claypool in the singles final.
Down a set and 5-4 in the second, Franck broke Claypool’s serve to stay in the match and turn the tide. Franck went on to win the match 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.
Loeb said qualifying two doubles teams and Franck for state was as much as he could have hoped for and called the singles final one of the best he had ever seen.
Franck and Kinderknecht qualified for state last year while the other three will be making their first appearances at state.
“Hopefully, we’ll do well,” Kinderknecht said. “I did well last year with Stefan (Nosic).”
Kinderknecht and Nosic finished fifth in doubles last year.
Skinner had a big smile when asked about being a freshman at state.
“I don’t really have as much pressure as the seniors,” Skinner said.
Senior Arthur Jago finished third in the singles draw. Rock Bridge had already clinched the district title Saturday. The Bruins will face Lebanon at 4 p.m. today at Rock Bridge in the regional round of the team tournament.