The stands in Stowe were full last Friday as the Stowe High boys tennis team battled Essex for the state Division 1 championship.
Students, parents and tennis fans overflowed the stands onto the grass and ignored tennis etiquette by cheering for the home team.
The championship came down to the final match, in which Carl Fung’s lob-after-lob strategy irritated the fans — but produced a state title for Essex.
“The Stowe boys came into the championships fit and confident knowing we had beaten Essex in the regular season,” coach Jeff Seivwright said. “Stowe has a very young team and the boys are looking forward to another successful season next spring.”
To start the match, the first three singles opponents and the first doubles teams took to the four courts at Stowe High.
Rai Bleda, Stowe’s No. 1 singles player, managed to win two games against Preston Gordon, the top high school singles player in Vermont, before losing the match.
“Rai rose to the occasion and played fantastic, and the match was much closer than the score would indicate,” Seivwright said.
Stowe’s No. 1 doubles team, Max McKenna and Sam Schoepke, soon evened things up, beating Lucas Buell and Ethan Brueckner. The Stowe pair hit their stride in the second set, putting it away 6-1.
Ben Salvas, at No. 2 singles, lost to Shulei Shen of Essex, but Alex Tilgner won a close match with David Wrenner pulling Stowe into a 2-2 tie with three matchups left.
The second set of matches started as the first had, with Stowe and Essex evenly matched, and with the crowd growing in size and sound.
At No. 2 doubles, Stowe’s Sebastian James and Alex Nissenbaum lost a close match to Aidan Jensen and David Knickerbocker, leaving only Johnny Driscoll and Jack Seivwright on the court for Stowe.
Seivwright, at No. 5 singles, and Brendan Brooks of Essex were evenly matched, neither able to get more than a one-game lead on the other. Seivwright finally captured the long first set, and forged out ahead in the second set, but Brooks made a comeback, winning 6-3.
With Stowe’s championship dependent on both Seivwright and Driscoll winning, Seivwright’s tie-breaker began. Brooks took a 5-1 lead in the tie-breaker, where the first player to 10 wins. Onlookers from Essex cheered for each point as Brooks’ score climbed, prompting the Stowe crowd to applaud even louder.
Seivwright, feeding off of the crowd’s energy, fought back, eating away at Brooks lead, point by point, until they were tied 7-7.
From there, neither player could get more than one point ahead. Each player had chances to win that one point that would finish it, but each time the end of the point was met with roars of victory and sighs of disappointment as the other caught up, continuing the already long game.
Finally, the crowd waited in silence as Seivwright was a point away from the win, with the score 11-10. The rally raced back and forth across the court, making both players sprint, until Seivwright was up at net.
Brooks, attempting to get it over Seivwright’s head, lobbed the ball high, but actually set Seivwright up for a spike, which he slammed into Brooks’ court, finishing the game.
The crowd roared and streaming down from the stands to congratulate Seivwright and watch Driscoll, the sole Stowe player left on the court.
With Seivwright’s win, Essex and Stowe were tied 3-3, and Driscoll’s was the deciding match. The crowd grouped around Driscoll’s court, clutching the fence to watch.
Driscoll lost the first set, and if he lost the second set, the championship would go to Essex.
The match seemed to last forever. No matter how well Driscoll hit a return, Fung was able to lob the ball back over the net, over and over again.
Frustrated fans began to yell “Play tennis!” or “Hit the ball!” as Fung wore Driscoll down with never-ending high shots. The match began to resemble a volleyball game.
Eventually, after over an hour, a tired Driscoll lost the match to Fung after a hard battle. With the game won, the championship belonged to Essex.
Though Stowe didn’t win the state championships, the team went undefeated from up until the finals, and played some tough and skilled tennis in a number of close matches to wrap up the season.