Blue Devils shut gate on Mustang title hopes

Even with superhuman efforts throughout their roster, it simply wasn’t enough to dethrone the kings.

Gate City High School, the defending group A boys tennis team champions, eked out a 5-2 win over George Mason in the finals on Friday afternoon, even though the five losses suffered by the Mustangs were much closer than the final score indicates.

“I saw a lot of heart today, there was definitely fight from the first serve to the final point,” Mason coach Matt Sowers said. “I’m proud of my players. The message is basically that we’re all winners but we were short of being a champion because we fell under the pressure.”

Two Mustang singles players went into three sets, both of whom eventually lost, but nonetheless demonstrated the even level of play on the Radford University courts. One day after defeating Appomattox Regional Governor’s School (ARGS) in the semifinals 5-0, George Mason came close to winning its fifth state title in six years, but it was simply the Blue Devils’ year to shine.

“It means a whole lot to win, I’m in awe,” Gate City senior Dalton Moore said. “We knew we would have to play Radford and Mason, two of the best teams we’ve played all year. I don’t think anyone thought we were going to win today, being so drained after yesterday against Radford [when we won 5-4]. We came out today, remembered that Mason robbed us of a state title two years ago, so we wanted to win one for the seniors.”

Senior Chad Sheppard, playing on his mother’s birthday, and junior Evan DeBoard secured the victory in No. 2 doubles, both dropping to their knees in glee after scoring the winning point. Sheppard held to push the score up to 3-1 after breaking serve early in the second set, breaking twice more to take a 6-2 win and clinch Gate City’s title.

Junior Tim Goetz rang in first for Mason, winning his singles match at No. 2 in under an hour for the second-straight day, Moore 6-1, 6-2. Goetz was rarely challenged in singles play while down in Radford, using an overwhelming forehand smash to subdue his opponent.

“Tim is a strong player and I was mutilated but I knew that it was team tennis,” said Moore, who will play at Carson-Newman College next year. “It’s not about me it’s about the team. I just tried to go out there and do my thing, I like to be the motivator and scream. We got out here in doubles and I knew we were on a mission.”

Mason senior Brian Sham, competing at “about fifty percent” according to his coach due to illness, gutted out a gritty match against Sheppard in the No. 2 slot, eventually falling 6-2, 7-6 (1). Sheppard, who defeated Sham on Thursday in the semifinals of the singles tournament, appeared to slow down after taking the first set with relative ease.

After attacking the net frequently, Sham relied on his backhand shot down the line with perfect angles to score winners against his opponent. Sheppard came back on a break point to tie the second set at 5-5, allowing Sham to hold to go up one game. Sheppard then held back to force the tiebreaker, eventually surging ahead to take the set.

“I was pleased with Brian’s effort,” Sowers said. “I was excited in the second set when he was playing against Sheppard, and I couldn’t have asked for a better effort from him and Tim in doubles.”

The most intense match of the afternoon came on court three, where Mason senior Johnny Vroom and Gate City senior Jordan Owens traded blows for three sets, with the final knockout punch eventually landed by Owens, 6-7 (5), 6-5, 6-2.

Vroom and Owens, two of the most visibly intense people in the entire Radford Athletic Complex Friday, played in a match for the ages. Vroom broke to open up his second set, going up 3-0 and appeared headed for the singles win. However, when up 5-2 and serving for the win, Vroom was unable to close it out despite having match-point four times in the game.

“Stamina is my number one thing,” Owens said. “My biggest enemy would be myself. After the first set, I got down 5-1, I was trying to play ugly tennis. I hate to win or play that way, but it’s states. You have to do what you have to do. I was hacking every forehand, every backhand, spinning in serves.

“I feel that it’s the only thing that I can beat anyone in is conditioning, if I can go three sets with anyone I can beat them,” he continued. “I literally said to myself ‘god let me win one game,’ and I ended up winning that one. After that, everyone was there watching and I couldn’t let them down by losing.”

Using a dazzling array of curse words to compliment his play, Owens forced a 5-5 tie on three unforced errors and a double fault by Vroom. Owens, who will play tennis next year at Chowan College on a full scholarship, lost the first game of the tiebreaker set, but cruised against his Mason opponent, breaking Vroom and then holding serve to win it. Vroom, playing with obvious pain in his left wrist, nonetheless climbed the net once the match was over, embracing Owens in a giant bear-hug.

“He’s a tall guy, and the ugly tennis strategy paid off,” Owens said about Vroom, who had 67 unforced errors and 27 double faults against only 11 winners in the match. “I’ll chase down balls, run down balls all day. It’s the only thing I can do, just let him make the mistakes and the score speaks for itself.”

“I felt it was destiny for him to win,” Moore added. “He did the same thing two years ago, won 12-straight games to win in three sets. I can’t even put watching it into words.”

Sophomore Sam Waters, playing in just his second state tournament match after winning yesterday against ARGS, took on DeBoard at No. 5 in a match-up dubbed by DeBoard as one with two players who “looked alike and had the same game.” Both played the lob to equal effectiveness, relying on their opponent to make a mistake, which often resulted in lengthy points with the pace more resembling a friendly than a state final.

After winning the first set 6-2, Waters dropped the second 6-2, eventually succumbing to the heat to lose the rubber set 6-0.

Junior Thomas Burnett, playing at No. 4, lost his match to J.T. McConnell 6-1, 6-0. McConnell, who played in the No. 1 doubles with Moore later in the contest against Goetz and Sham, put Burnett away relatively quickly for Gate City’s first singles win of the afternoon.

An, playing singles at No. 6, made up for a sluggish match yesterday against ARGS, efficiently dispatching senior Josh Egan 6-2, 6-3, breaking serve to close out the match. However, he and Burnett were less effective in doubles, allowing the Blue Devils to clinch.

“Typically, during a regular season, we give a man of the match awards, and if I were to give the award today, it would’ve went to Chris An hands down,” Sowers said. “He had quick feet, which he typically did not have, and appeared to be carrying his team in doubles.”

Another classic was already in the works at No. 1 doubles, which was forced to end in the third set when DeBoard and Sheppard’s match finished. Goetz and Sham fell behind early 4-1, but the Mason junior held serve and then promptly broke McConnell. After Sham and Moore held, Goetz followed suit again to push the score to 5-5. Sham served up a huge running backhand volley into the alley to break Gate City, but the Blue Devils prevailed in the tiebreaker. The Mason duo then took the second set 7-5.

Even after their loss, though, one would be hard-pressed to see any sign of defeat in the Mustangs, as all the underclassmen ventured to the upper courts at Radford University and began swatting the ball around, laughing and joking along the way.

“Look at [Mason], they’re up there hitting,” DeBoard said after a round of pictures with the trophy. “Are they crazy?”

“Yeah. We’re crazy,” said Goetz, who is one of three Mason singles players to return next year. “But in a good way. We’re relaxed, we had fun. It was a good run; we did better than last year, so we’re just letting off some energy.”

“Losing is going to leave a taste in our mouths to challenge us to get back to his moment and work hard throughout the entire off season,” added Sowers.

State semifinals: Mason cruises to 5-0 win over ARGS