For Ben Loeb, coach of the Rock Bridge girls tennis program, this year’s state championships are special. Loeb said bringing the state trophy back to Rock Bridge would be the perfect way to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the greatest dual meet he has ever seen.
In 1999, five-time defending champion St. Joseph’s Academy had Loeb and the Bruins backed into a corner, up 4-1 in the state final match. Despite facing game point on three occasions, Loeb said his team made a miraculous comeback, winning the final four matches in three sets each.
“It was the most epic comeback and greatest dual meet I had ever seen or been a part of,” Loeb said.
Rock Bridge’s 1999 championship started a nine-year streak of consecutive trips to the Class 2 state tournament for the Bruins that ended in 2008 after losing to Glendale 5-4 in sectionals. After watching Kickapoo win the sectional in 2008, the Bruins came back and defeated Kickapoo 5-4 in sectionals this year to return to the final four.
Rock Bridge will play Marquette at 9 a.m. Thursday in a semifinal match at the Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield. St. Teresa’s Academy plays LaDue Horton Watkins in the other semifinal Thursday with the winners advancing to the state championship.
Although Rock Bridge is not the favorite, Loeb encouraged his players to face the upcoming test head on.
“They need to embrace the challenge and welcome it,” Loeb said. “Play with confidence and accept the responsibility they have been given.”
Loeb said he planned on using the anniversary as inspiration and motivation for the team.
“I wanted to tell the team how many girls have come before them and how many great moments (Rock Bridge) has had,” Loeb said. “We have a chance to make a great moment ourselves. We might have the chance to play in an epic classic dual meet. I want the girls to embrace Rock Bridge history.”
No. 1 singles player Kelsey Kinderknecht and No. 2 singles player Sarah Heeter are the only Rock Bridge players with previous experience at state. Over the season, Kinderknecht went 20-6, and Heeter went 13-9. Heeter joins Alice Mends as the Bruins' No. 1 doubles team and Kinderknecht is paired with Abby Kaysar at No. 2 doubles.
Hickman senior Dina Kaissi is set to compete Friday in the singles portion of the state championships.
Kaissi has been to the state meet twice before and placed fifth in the meet last year. As the only player from Hickman, Kaissi said she hopes to place higher in this year's meet in order to represent her school well.
"I just need to go out there and have no fear," Kaissi said. "I think if I play my game, I could match up pretty well with the competition."
Hickman coach Andrew Materer pointed out that no Hickman player has placed better than fifth at the state finals in about 20 years.
"It's pretty cool that I could be the first to do that in so long," Kaissi said. "It just motivates me even more to improve on last year."