After two days, 27 matches and a 10-year wait, the Rock Bridge tennis team claimed a Great Eight championship Saturday.
Kara Hickey beat Pembroke Hill’s Erin Bleakley in a 10-point tiebreaker after splitting the first two sets of their match to give the Bruins a 5-4 victory against the perennial Kansas City powerhouse.
It was Rock Bridge’s first victory in the 10-year history of the tournament they host, adding a missing accomplishment to an accomplished program.
“To win it for the first time in 10 tries, with it in such dramatic fashion coming down to the wire between two great players who both played well, was just outstanding,” said Rock Bridge coach Ben Loeb. “It could have gone either way.”
Rock Bridge won two of the three doubles matches to begin the day, meaning a split in the six singles matches was all the team needed for the win. Bruin Kirsten Stople stumbled at No. 2 singles (2-6, 5-7); Whitney Reys lost a tough match at No. 3 (6-7, 3-6); and Ashley Miles fell at No. 6 (1-6, 1-6). Meanwhile Karla Kruse won 6-1, 6-1, and Sarah Seltsam came up with a 6-4, 6-4 victory.
Rock Bridge nearly lost its opportunity for the final match heroics. Seltsam took an early 5-0 lead in the second set of her match, before allowing Pembroke’s Kiersten Goza to capture four straight games. Seltsam said that’s when she refocused to win the final game and left the final undecided contest between Hickey and Bleakley to decide it.
As the Seltsam match finished, Hickey found herself down a set, 4-6 to Pembroke’s No. 1 player. After also dropping the first game of the second set, Hickey showed the talent that’s made her one of the state’s top players, the next five games to force the tiebreaker.
Hickey, who said she became aware of the tied match early in her second set, carried the momentum over. As teammates and fans congregated to watch the only remaining action of the day, Hickey sprinted to an 8-4 lead. At 8-4, Hickey called a let on her own serve - a serve that Bleakley had returned and was set to play. A discussion of whether the person returning service must call the let ensued, and following the debate Hickey was awarded two more serves instead of the point going to Bleakley.
Bleakley made a run to tie the tiebreaker 8-8. Hickey, however, followed with anace, then forced Bleakley to hit long, ending the match and the tournament.
“It feels awesome,” Hickey said afterward. “We’ve never won it before. We’ve gotten close, and everybody on our team fought really hard and we deserved it. I’m really proud of them.”
Hickey said her game got more aggressive with the adrenaline of the moment, making the difference between the first set, second set and tiebreaker.
“The pressure I thought really helped me elevate my game,” she said. “When the crowd came over and started cheering, that really motivated me and pumped me up.”
Loeb said the familiarity his team has with stressful matches can’t be overlooked in an anxious atmosphere.
“We have a lot of girls that have been through this type of situation,” Loeb said. “That experience of battling and knowing everything counts, that winner takes all, helps. I think it (this win) shows a lot about their coolness under pressure.”
“You’ve got to give credit though to our girls for coming through when they needed to, and Kara Hickey in particular in the end.”
The Bruins defeated Cape Girardeau Central 9-0 in the first round, and beat Blue Valley 7-2 win against North Saturday morning. The Blue Valley squad beat Belleville West 5-4 in the third place match, and John Burroughs finished fifth following a 7-2 win against Joplin.