Dunbar boys, Lexington Christian girls win first-ever 11th Region team tennis titles

All eyes fell upon the match between Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Atharva Dang and Lexington Catholic’s Jett VanderHorst on Tuesday evening; the gritty battle — which ultimately resulted in a tiebreaker victory (2-6, 6-4, 1-0 [10-8]) for Dang — lasted about two hours, and decided whether Dunbar or LexCath would be the first boys team to hoist the 11th Region Team Tennis Tournament trophy.

Dang, just an eighth grader, dropped the first set to experienced senior VanderHorst, but found a way to come back and take it — even as the stakes continued to rise.

“The first set I lost, I missed a lot (of balls),” Dang said. “But then I just made balls. Not really worrying about how I made them; I just had to make them, and kind of force him to go for the shot because he was always playing super consistent. But just grinding out and just staying mentally tough.”

Dunbar had swept the doubles matches, with Raymond Yu and Saketh Sanjay defeating Conner Lineberry and freshman Jude Wiggington 6-2, 6-3 and Thomas Chandler and Nick Colon beating Field Costich and Sam Grimm 6-4, 6-3. But Lexington Catholic got a big lift from its top singles player, freshman Jacob Holland, who beat Dunbar senior captain Price Eisele 6-0, 7-5.

The new KHSAA team competition format, somewhat similar to that at the collegiate level, is best-of-five, made up of three singles and two doubles matches. In Monday’s semifinals, the Bulldogs defeated Henry Clay 3-0, immediately ending the other two matches still in progress. Unfinished matches are listed as such, and do not count toward competitors’ overall Universal Tennis Rating (UTR).

So when, on Tuesday, LexCath sophomore Clark Malone edged Dunbar junior Nikan Rosenau 3-6, 6-2, 1-0 (10-2) in a tiebreaker, the pressure was on. It would be Dang vs. VanderHorst for the team title, with all attendees watching in rapt attention.

Not only did VanderHorst take the first set, but he was up in the second, too. Dunbar head coach Britt Chandler celebrated Dang’s fight to stay in the match, noting the eighth grader’s competitive nature.

“He’s an unbelievable competitor,” Chandler said. “He’s only an eighth grader, and he’s just such a great competitor. That’s probably what he does best; it’s not his tennis, it’s the way he competes.”

Dang said the pressure of the match got to him “a little bit in the beginning,” but that he enjoys the feelings that come with high stakes. And, of course, despite the fact that Dang was playing a singles match, he knew he was playing for his team. The Bulldogs sat — and, when the end neared, stood excitedly — in a line, shouting their support for Dang. Eisele said the entire team had faith that Dang was capable of pulling out the win, and that the support can be enough to “help lift you up.”

“I think (in) tennis you can get really caught up in the individual,” Eisele said. “And what I’ve learned playing ... you can get really caught up in yourself. But when you have other people to help lift you up, and then once you’re up, you lend a hand down and lift someone else up. So it’s just a great environment.”

Eighth grader Atharva Dang (holding the trophy) helped lift Paul Laurence Dunbar to victory against Lexington Catholic for the first 11th Region team championship.
Eighth grader Atharva Dang (holding the trophy) helped lift Paul Laurence Dunbar to victory against Lexington Catholic for the first 11th Region team championship.

Eagles prevail

Lexington Christian Academy girls tennis had a tall task in Tuesday’s finals — find a way to edge Henry Clay, a prolific presence in the 11th Region. And it was the team format that pushed the Eagles through.

In last week’s 11th Region individuals tournament, the Eagles didn’t have the finish they wanted. Despite two all-region team selections in eighth grader Katie Lankford and senior Lily Harper, and a roster packed with young talent, only Lankford earned a state berth as an individual qualifier with her runner-up finish in the girls’ singles finals against Henry Clay’s Anna Du.

On Monday, LCA fended off a good Sayre team with a hard-fought 3-2 result to face the Blue Devils for the team championship. In Tuesday’s finals, the Eagles would once again have to play all five matches to decide their fate. LCA head coach Kyle Macy said he was most proud of the whole team effort, especially since “it was kind of stacked against us going in.”

“That’s what the team championship’s all about,” Macy said. “Everybody playing their role and doing their job, so I’m proud of all of them.”

Lankford earned the first point for the Eagles, taking the first set 6-3 in a rematch against Du before Du was forced to retire from the match due to injury.

“I’m proud because our team is so supportive,” Lankford said. “I played (Du) in regionals and I lost 6-0, 6-0. But my team was super encouraging, and they pushed me through.”

Henry Clay then swept the doubles matches, with senior Eva Pace Cassidy and sophomore Charlotte Young beating LCA freshman Makendia Smith and junior Katie Roth 6-0, 6-0 and sophomore Anna Pickrell and junior Kaitlin Gish defeating LCA seventh graders Kennedy Robinson and Madeline Levey 6-2, 6-0.

Harper, who won a key singles victory for the Eagles with her 6-0, 6-3 defeat of Henry Clay’s Wini Lile, noted the importance of fighting through adversity en route to the championship.

“Some of those games were very strenuous and very long,” Harper said. “And it took a lot of consistency and perseverance to push through and find the strength, especially in this heat. It’s very hot outside.”

Hot, indeed. The sun beat down on the Sayre Athletic Complex, its athletes and attendees in their litany of lawn chairs as temperatures reached the mid-80s. Sports drinks and water breaks abounded, each point was certainly earned.

Freshman Lauren Spraggins, who defeated Henry Clay’s Emery Cassidy 6-3, 6-0, echoed Harper’s sentiment about never giving up, “no matter what happened,” and said the team format makes a real difference when the going gets tough.

“I feel like it makes the team closer as a whole,” Spraggins said. “Knowing that we’re competing together and not just by ourselves, but we have our teammates with us.”

Lexington Christian Academy beat Henry Clay 3-2 to win the girls’ 11th Region team championship.
Lexington Christian Academy beat Henry Clay 3-2 to win the girls’ 11th Region team championship.

Henry Clay, Lafayette players earn repeat victories in 11th Region tennis championships