Handley girls’ tennis reaches final with 5-3 win over Briar Woods
WINCHESTER — You can say this with certainty — the Handley girls’ tennis team earned its way back to the state tournament Wednesday.
After playing at two different venues over just under seven hours, the Judges earned a 5-3 win over Briar Woods in the Region II semifinals to clinch their first state tournament berth since 2010, which was the last of five straight trips.
“It’s an amazing feeling to win this,” said Handley senior Jessie Nolan, the only current member of the team who was also on the 2010 team. “I’m really proud of our team for sticking it out and having to go from playing outside raining to playing inside just two matches at a time. It wasn’t easy, but we pulled it out.”
The Judges (15-4) will travel to Crozet to face Western Albemarle in Friday’s final. The Warriors have beaten Handley in both of their meetings this season.
Though that will be a long bus trip, Handley is probably ready for anything after taking down the Falcons (16-3), who were the Dulles District runner-up during the regular season and the Dulles tournament champions.
The match started outside at the Slaughter Tennis Pavilion, with singles matches starting at 3:55 p.m. But 10 minutes later rain starting falling, and with the forecast calling for severe weather the match was moved indoors to the Winchester Country Club. Once there, the high school players were only able to use two courts at a time until 7 p.m., when a third court opened up.
The singles provided back-and-forth drama (it was 3-3 after they were over), but it was the doubles play that Handley takes so much pride in that gave the Judges the points they needed.
The No. 3 doubles team of juniors Emily Smith and Eileen Wilkerson provided the clinching point, earning a gutsy 7-6 (7-3), 6-1 win in a match that took 80 minutes. They began playing 15 minutes after defending Group AA doubles champions Nolan and Kathryn Bock earned a 6-1, 6-0 win at No. 1 doubles.
Smith and Wilkerson ran and hugged each other as they watched Briar Woods hit long trying to return a Smith slam on match point.
The good friends were basically in complete control in the second set, this after they got on a roll in the tiebreak. Down 3-2, Handley won five straight points, and Wilkerson and Smith teamed up for three straight winners to end the first set.
“We were just thinking about going to states,” Smith said. “We just wanted to keep winning games.”
Smith and Wilkerson went undefeated in district play as a duo and have beaten just about everyone else they’ve played, and they said the amount of time they spend together definitely shows up in their performance on the court.
“We take lessons together and basically learned how to play together,” Smith said. “[Wilkerson’s] overheads were on point tonight.”
“[Smith] has a great serve,” Wilkerson said. “She aced a girl four times in the first game she served. Her serve always helps us.”
Handley’s two head coaches weren’t at all surprised that their players were able to show the necessary grit. Martha Johnson said it would have great to play outside so her team could feed off the crowd, but the Judges didn’t let that stop them.
“We were ready for a big challenge, and we were ready to go deep,” Johnson said.
“Our doubles are definitely our strong suit, and we definitely proved it today,” Trevor Scott said.
Handley began the day with a 2-0 lead as a result of wins from Nolan (6-1, 6-0) at No. 1 singles and Bock (6-0, 6-1) at No. 2. Smith then put the Judges up 3-1 with her 6-1, 6-2 win at No. 6 singles, but Briar Woods forced doubles with wins at 5 and 4, with the latter match going to Noelle Zhanginen after three hours (4-6, 6-1, 6-4).
But the end of the day belonged to the Judges, and they can’t wait to see what’s next.
“It’s awesome to be going to states,” Smith said. “It feels great.”
— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1