A year ago, the boys’ Division 1 tennis championship came down to the final game of the final set in the final match.
That day, Stowe High School fell victim to a lob that fell out of the sky like a fuzzy unripe apple.
This year, the final match was just dessert.
Stowe capped its unbeaten regular season — its second in a row — at home Saturday with a 5-2 win over Burlington, in a contest that turned on a key doubles duel in which the Raiders came from behind to beat one of the best doubles teams in the state — at least outside of Stowe.
“Good to see us go best against best in the state championship,” Stowe’s Jack Seivwright said.
Junior Seahorses Henry Hood and Julius Dodson have been best friends all their lives, Burlington Coach Fran Demasi said, and they are known for their antics on the court, including colorful costumes — Skida masks and sunglasses the last time they played Stowe — and gesticulations that would make a Wimbledon line judge blush at the impropriety of it all.
On Saturday, the Burlington duo sported Toronto Raptors basketball jerseys and chains over white tennis shirts in their match against Stowe’s Max McKenna and Jono Nissenbaum.
The Burlington boys tromped all over Stowe in the first set, 6-1, with fists pumping and faithful fans shouting out “Game 5!” in reference to the NBA Finals featuring those Raptors. Hey, whatever works.
“What we were doing in the first set wasn’t working, obviously,” Nissenbaum said later.
“You don’t know what to expect with those guys,” McKenna said. “They were rushing the net as much as they could, so we had to adjust our game play to counter-affect that, so that was a lot of fun.”
Nissenbaum and McKenna kept their poise and battled back to take the second set, 7-5. Their style was to keep things steady as Hood and Dodson kept trying to mix things up.
That comeback set up a third-set tiebreak — first to 10 points, win by two — in which the Raptor-clad Burlington players seemed to deflate in the 83-degree sun. Nissenbaum and McKenna rolled to victory, 10-4, in the third.
Asked about his and Nissenbaum’s chemistry, McKenna, “Good, as always. I love playing with him.”
Demasi said the state championship turned on that three-set doubles duel, especially after Burlington took the top two singles matches. At No. 2 doubles, Stowe cousins Oliver and Henry Paumgarten rolled to a 6-2, 6-4 victory.
“That was a turning point,” Demasi said. “I thought if we won that one, we’d have a chance to win the whole thing. It just didn’t happen.”
As for the excitement his dynamic duo brought, Demasi said, “They’re hilarious, but when the match starts, you know, they’re pretty darn good.”
Top singles downed
After the match, Stowe coach Jamie Watson said he purposely sent his top two singles players and both doubles teams for the first four matches, knowing he has a deep and talented singles roster.
“It’s nice to not allow a pressure situation like that and allow it to come down to the last match,” he said. “At least stay on par with the opponent and not have to dig ourselves out of any holes.”
At the top of the singles card, No. 2 Ben Salvas went down 6-0, 6-1, while top player Rai Bleda-Vilalta gave Burlington’s No. 1 Henry Wool fits in a long match, with plenty of fancy footwork and long Gatorade breaks, going down 6-2, 6-4.
Such is the burden of being the top player on your team — you’re always going up against the other team’s top player.
“Even though I hope to win more matches, when I go up against the best guys, it helps the rest of the team out,” Bleda-Vilalta said. “My legs are heavy, for sure.”
Added Salvas, “With tennis, you just have to play each point at a time, and it really comes down to a team sport.”
The doubles teams’ wins made things 2-2 and set up the denouement for the championship. But coach Watson needed to log some nervous miles, first. He tends to walk around a lot during matches, and Saturday was no different — don’t mind me, I’m just going to take a lap around the school to calm my nerves.
“We have to win four matches, so every single one of them is incredibly important, but that was, I’d say, the most impressive turnaround,” Watson said later, of the key doubles match. He said, though, he trusted any of the three players he had left to take the court.
“They want the ball on their strings, which is what you need,” he said.
No. 3 Alex Tilgner and No. 4 Jack Seivwright started their singles matches around the same time, while Bleda-Vilalta and one-dubs went long on the other two courts.
Burlington’s Silas Brown and Tido Schumann couldn’t break Tilgner and Seivwright in their respective matches; the Stowe players earned wins nearly simultaneously.
That was it. Stowe had the championship in lockdown.
But there was still an entire match to be played, which is one of the more interesting occurrences in high school sports.
Stowe’s Sam Schoepke — a tall and lanky multisport athlete — was playing in his last high school sporting event. At the No. 5 singles spot, he and opponent Louis Berland played a more methodical match — less razzle dazzle, as Seivwright might say.
But they had something no other match had: a singularly dedicated audience. As the only matchup left, with three empty courts next to them, everyone shifted over to their court and cheered their boys on.
“It’s great that they get to finish the match, and to play it out,” Watson said. “This is that perfect mix of how you do as an individual and it all boiling up to the team.”
Stowe Reporter intern Sage Lively contributed to this report, the “razzle dazzle” line from classmate Jack Seivwright.