SPRINGFIELD — A lone racket lay on lower court 3 at Cooper Tennis Complex after Thursday’s state tennis Class 2 semi-final between Rock Bridge and St. Joseph’s.
Left with it were the Bruins’ state championship hopes.
It had been neglected in the wake of the celebration following St. Joseph’s 5-4 victory. Rock Bridge (26-1) swept Incarnate Word Academy 6-0 in the afternoon to claim third, while the Angels beat St. Teresa’s Academy 5-1 for the title.
With the duel knotted at four and trailing a set, the Bruins No. 2 doubles team of Kirsten Stople and Karla Kruse rallied to force a third and deciding set against St. Joseph’s Margaret Junker and Shannon Ward. The Angels prevailed, though, winning the third set for a 7-5, 3-6, 6-4 victory.
As their teammates flowed onto the court to rejoice, the Bruins hung their heads and their faces filled with tears of dejection.
“It hurts a lot when you put so much into it,” coach Ben Loeb said. “You put your heart and soul into something, and it doesn’t work out your way. It’s painful.”
Said senior Kara Hickey: “I guess there’s some disbelief that it’s over because we wanted it so bad. We’re just heartbroken.”
Rock Bridge entered the final four with a target on its back. It beat the Angels for the team championship the past two years, and 1993 was the most recent time a team other than the Angels or the Bruins claimed the title.
Loeb knew a three-peat wouldn’t come easy.
“On paper they were favored in four of the six singles matches,” he said. “When we got to 3-3, I thought we had a fair chance to win it. I thought we could win two out of the three doubles.”
With Ashley Miles and Sarah Seltsam winning a quick 6-2, 6-0 decision at No. 3, the Bruins needed only one of the remaining two doubles matches to clinch a spot in the final.
It didn’t happen.
Last year’s state doubles champions, Hickey and Whitney Reys, fell behind two games early in their match at No. 1, and despite tying the first set at 5, they lost it 5-7. They began to press in the second set, leading to numerous unforced errors in a 3-6 second set loss to Jennifer Kedziersiki and Casey Miller.
“I thought we’d win at No. 1 doubles,” Loeb said. “We made too many errors, and to their credit the other team played well.”
Said Reys: “I’m never going to forget that because I know we could have won that match … me and Kara; our senior year; No. 1 doubles; we’re right in there that close. But we lost a few points and we couldn’t get a lead.”
After losing in singles, Reys could be heard yelling encouragement to pump up several teammates. After her doubles match, she was again relegated to cheerleading.
“Once I lost, I just tried to put everything else into all my teammates and just hope anything I said, or what I could give them would help them win,” Reys said. “I think it’s a lot harder to watch than to be out there. You don’t have any control over what’s happening.”
Hickey led with a quiet determination on the court. Her 6-3, 6-3 No. 1 singles victory propelled her team to the singles split. By the time she took the court for singles in the third-place match, she said she was simply going through the motions. The trophy presentation featured forced smiles and failed attempts to cover their despondence.
“It’s really disappointing to have the undefeated season we had. It’s hard to look back and think, ‘gosh it’s so great because this just kind of looms over everything else.” Reys said.
All that is left is today and Saturday’s individual competition. Hickey, typically reluctant to talk about herself, said she is ready for the singles tournament, and to see her teammates in doubles.
“This makes us want it even more,” she said. “Especially if we get to play St. Joe.”
Revenge mixed with the disappointment. That was bound to be the case for one of the teams, after what both coaches called another St. Joseph’s- Rock Bridge classic.
“One outstanding team beat another outstanding team,” Loeb said. “It doesn’t make it any easier to take for the moment, but in reflecting on the whole season, we’ve had a great season.”
A season that included a new team record for duel wins, a streak of 40 straight duel wins, and victories in the Great Eight, Pembroke Hill, Southern Illinois and North Central Missouri Tournaments. There was only bronze, though, at the end of this journey.