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SPRINGFIELD — For Rock Bridge, winning its second straight Class 2 state tennis championship Thursday was only slightly different than winning in 2002.
The Bruins defeated St. Joseph’s Academy 5-3 to earn the 2003 crown at the Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield, their third since 1999.
Bruins players and coaches agreed the victory was just as gratifying as their 2002 title.
“It feels a little different, but it’s still the best feeling ever,” junior Kara Hickey said.
Rock Bridge coach Ben Loeb said, “It’s like saying which one of your several children you love the most. I love them all. This one means just as much as any of the others.”
After defeating Incarnate Word 6-0 in the semifinals, the Bruins faced a familiar and talented opponent in St. Joseph’s Academy.
The Angels beat Rock Bridge 8-1 on Sept. 6 to give the Bruins their only loss. At one point, the Bruins (19-1) trailed in five of the six singles matches against the Angels.
Hickey, whom assistant coach Bob Reys called the best player in the state, defeated Jennifer Kedzierski 6-1, 6-2, and Stephanie Smarr and Sarah Seltsam each came from behind to win.
Smarr, the state’s career wins leader with 112, proved even a record-holder isn’t immune to getting rattled. She needed three sets to defeat Casey Miller, winning 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
“I was nervous, but I tried not to show it,” she said.
Loeb said his game plan was to get a split in the six singles matches and then unveil an unconventional strategy during the three deciding doubles matches.
The Angels followed the status quo by teaming up their top two players, Kedzierski and Miller. Loeb matched the Angel tandem against his No. 2, Smarr, and his No. 4, Ashley Miles. Hickey, Rock Bridge’s No. 1 and Smarr’s usual partner, teamed with Seltsam, the No. 6.
“The strategy I had for the doubles was to have three No. 2 doubles teams and hope that they had their top two girls together,” Loeb said.
Despite the underdog role, Smarr and Miles won the first set against Kedzierski and Miller 6-1. It ended there, though, because Hickey hit an overhead smash to clinch the championship before Smarr and Miles could finish their match.
Whitney Reys and Karla Kruse won their match 6-2, 6-4 after each lost in singles play.
“Honestly, I didn’t think we could win (our match) in doubles,” Miles said. “We had nothing to lose, and they were supposed to kill us.”
Whitney Reys said the Bruins’ intangible qualities are just as important as their ability.
“We’re the greatest friends, and that makes it so much easier to win and lose together,” she said. “When we win, it binds us that much closer. It’s incredible.”
Loeb said, “I told them at the beginning of the year, ‘We enrich each other’s lives.’ I want them to think team first and me second.
“I felt like the energy of our team was really positive. I felt like we’d fight real hard no matter what the situation, and feel like all of our girls did that.”