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Boys tennis: Ottumwa falls in substate heartbreaker

May 13—OTTUMWA — The first two days of competition at Dan Staggs Family Courts has certainly produced plenty of postseason drama.

Fans of the Ottumwa High School tennis program have now experienced both the thrill of victory and agony of defeat over that 48-hour span. One day after the Ottumwa girls produced a 5-2 regional win over Burlington, battling through four hours and three tiebreakers to extend their season, the Ottumwa boys tennis team found themselves battling even deeper into the afternoon in a 2A substate semifinal with Iowa City High that went right down to the final points of the final match.

Hopes of another dramatic postseason home-court celebration, however, ended in heartbreak on Saturday. Iowa City High held off the Bulldogs, winning 5-4 with a second-set 7-2 tiebreaker win by Charlie Pfohl and Liam Murphy in the No. 3 doubles match clinching the second substate win of the day for the Little Hawks.

"That was probably one of the closest competition-level teams we've ever faced," Ottumwa junior Dominick Rath said. "To have it come right down to that last match and have many of the matches coming down to final few points, it felt like there were tiebreakers going on all around us. Whether it was tiebreakers or deuce points, it felt like everything was really close throughout the day."

Rath was right in the thick of that close competition, playing in three different tiebreakers over the course of two wins for the Bulldogs. After dropping a 7-2 second-set tiebreaker to Joel Brown in the No. 3 singles match, Rath responded in a critical third-set super-tiebreaker pulling out a 10-6 win that clinched a 6-3, 6-7, 1-0 victory sending Ottumwa and Iowa City High into doubles play tied at 3-3.

"You just can't let that pressure get to you," Rath said. "You almost have to live for it and be ready to take action once it happens."

With the entire dual riding on the outcome of the three matches in doubles play, Iowa City High (9-7) jumped out to what appeared to be a decisive edge by winning the first set in all three matches. Ottumwa (6-5) suddenly needed to rally by winning at least two of the three matches in third-set tiebreakers, needing to win at least two of the three second sets to keep those hopes alive.

"We were on our toes with every point," Ottumwa senior Josh Shoemaker said. "Once you get it into a third set, it's anybody's game at that point."

Abhay Anil and Emmett Bottorff put Iowa City High on the verge of the win, pulling off a 6-3, 6-2 sweep against Toby Schmidt and Logan Storto in the top doubles match forcing Ottumwa to rally in the last two matches to pull out the win. Shoemaker and Rath did their part, easily winning the second set of the No. 2 doubles match over Brown and Brendan Lestina to force a third-set super-tiebreaker.

While Rath and Shoemaker were battling for Ottumwa's fourth win, Moses Merrill and Caleb Ziegler were battling to force a third-set tiebreaker. Prohl and Murphy edged in front of Merrill and Ziegler, 5-4, moving within a game of ending the match and the dual as Shoemaker and Rath entered their decisive tiebreaker.

"Once we got that second set, I knew we just had to keep making sure the third court was not getting done before our match," Rath said. "If we pulled out our tiebreaker and could tie up the dual, that would give (Merrill and Ziegler) a chance to pull it out for us."

It wasn't easy, but Shoemaker and Rath were able to put away a 10-8 win in the supertiebreaker while Merrill and Zeigler were able to extend the No. 3 doubles match allowing Ottumwa to catch Iowa City High at 4-4. Suddenly, with the second set still hanging in the balance, the Bulldogs were one late run of points away from completing the comeback.

Those points, however, would not fall for Ottumwa. Three straight points in the 11th game of the second set allowed Prohl and Murphy to take a 6-5 lead in the second set after Merrill and Zeigler built a 40-15 lead.

After forcing a tiebreaker, Merrill and Zeigler scored the first point of the second-set tiebreaker drawing a huge cheer from their Bulldog teammates. Prohl and Murphy, however, quieted the crowd winning six straight points before closing out the 7-2 win on a double fault by Zeigler sending Iowa City High on to face Iowa City West on Wednesday in the substate finals.

"We had some tough match-ups this year and we picked up some big wins. That helped give us the chance to host this match," Rath said. "Having these new courts is going to be a huge thing for tennis in Ottumwa going forward. Being able to have more courts to play on and having big crowds show up I'm hoping will get more kids out for the sport."

Ottumwa's tennis season isn't quite over yet. Schmidt will close out his career for the Bulldogs next week competing for the second time in three years in the Class 2A state singles tournament after scoring district tournament sweeps over Anirudh Manimaran of Ames (6-1, 6-1) and Hudson Christie of Des Moines Lincoln (6-2, 6-2) on way to a runner-up finish at West Des Moines last Monday.

"Last year was unfortunate. I had an injury that really kept me from being able to make it to back to state," Schmidt said. "I'll definitely be more prepared and ready this year."

— Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.