NORWALK — Veteran Red Oak tennis coach Dan Martinez, who also coaches basketball, compared Saturday’s hotly-contested substate team tennis final with Creston/O-M to one of those classic Hawkeye 10 barnburners in a packed gymnasium.
Under a hot sun and a stiff southerly breeze, the Tigers and Panthers went toe-to-toe for nearly four hours trying to gain that precious fifth win in the setup of six singles and three doubles matches.
At stake was a trip to the state final four in team tennis May 28 at Waveland Courts in Des Moines, where the Panthers participated in the Saydel Tournament this season. It would be the first state trip for a Panther team since the 1988 semifinal team coached by Ron Johnson.
Red Oak has gone to the state final four 11 times, but none since 2007.
Both teams played tenaciously through a 3-3 deadlock in singles, after they disposed of their substate semifinal opponents earlier in the day.
Creston/O-M dispatched conference rival Atlantic, 5-1, before playing any doubles matches. Red Oak took nearly four hours to battle past Ballard, 5-2, with two doubles matches well under way when the outcome was clinched.
With the required hour’s break, Creston/O-M players finally took to the court again at 2:15 p.m., after winning their semifinal at about 10:30 a.m.
Red Oak won the first two matches that were completed at No. 5 and No. 1 singles, but Garrett Taylor outlasted Red Oak senior Geoff Sellers at No. 3 to close it to 2-1. Then both Ryan Cook (No. 6) and Adam Bochart (No. 4) claimed wins to put the Panthers up, 3-2.
Panther senior Bryce McIlravy and Red Oak No. 2 player Jordan Nelson were locked in a hard-fought duel that went deep into the third set. Finally, Nelson won it, 6-3, sending the teams tied 3-3 into the late-afternoon doubles round.
The first team to claim two of the three matches would advance.
The mood was upbeat under the canopy where Creston/O-M fans gathered for shelter from the unrelenting sun, as two of the three Panther duos claimed victories in the first set. Substate play is best two-of-three sets to six.
Most significantly, Red Oak state placewinner Pete Walker and No. 6 Tiger Hayden Berry fell in the first set to Creston/O-M’s state-qualifying doubles team of Colby Taylor and McIlravy, 6-3.
Red Oak’s only doubles losses the entire season had been sustained by Walker and Berry against Taylor and McIlravy and the Atlantic state team of Tyler Fischer and Noah Welter.
Meanwhile, Garret Taylor and Bochart won their first set at No. 2 doubles, 6-4, while Jacob Caviness and Cook lost their opener, 6-2. However, they rallied to force a third set by winning the second.
Meanwhile, Red Oak regained some momentum by forcing Colby Taylor and McIlravy to a third set. Garret Taylor and Bochart, likewise, were extended to a third set in a 7-6 tiebreaker loss (10-8) in set two.
Because of the length of that second set, they were barely under way in their No. 2 doubles third set when the match was decided. Red Oak took the third set at No. 3 doubles, 6-2, leaving it up to Colby Taylor and McIlravy against the hard-serving Walker and Berry.
With so much at stake on nearly every point, crowd reactions — both groans and cheers — were audible throughout the set.
McIlravy and Taylor fell behind in games, 4-3, but put on a spurt to pull even at 5-5. With Red Oak then up 6-5, it came down to whether the Panther seniors could force a tiebreaker similar to the Bochart-Taylor match in set two, or lose the next game, which would give the Tigers the coveted fifth victory of the match.
They battled evenly through the first four points of McIlravy’s service game, 30-30. But Walker and Berry won two successive points to secure the 6-4 set win, and clinch the match to earn the substate championship banner and medals.
Bochart and Taylor were then pulled off the court, since even if they won, the team outcome would be no closer than a Red Oak 5-4 victory. Officially, it went in the books as Red Oak 5, Creston/O-M 3.
But it seemed closer. As in a dead heat.
“All those doubles matches going to a third set. It was back and forth, like a basketball game,” Martinez said. “It had all the momentum shifts and rhythm changes of a (playoff) basketball game. I was proud of our boys. The Creston kids are really tough.”
Creston/O-M coach Kevin Cooper was both crestfallen, and proud of his team’s competitive nature until the final point of the day.
“We had our chances,” he said quietly. “It was a tough one to lose. We were leading, then behind, back and forth.”
The Panther coach said Red Oak’s seizure of three singles matches proved to be vital for the Tigers.
“The best case scenario for us today was to go 4-2 in singles,” Cooper said. “Then we’d only have to win one in doubles. They’ve only lost two doubles matches all year, so to get two of three against them is pretty tough.”
Cooper noted a rally to a third set by Cook and Caviness against a Red Oak team that soundly defeated them 10-2 in the regular-season dual.
Both teams had a player — Cook and Sellers — who had graduation parties scheduled in the late afternoon hours, when the long substate battle spilled into that time frame.
“Geoff is our valedictorian and was missing his senior party today,” Martinez said. “I said to him, ‘if you’re so smart, why did you schedule it on the same day as substate, when you played in it last year?’ I think maybe he lost a little concentration today. But you have to give the Creston kids credit. In that match, I thought Bochart showed how far he’s come in his mental toughness on the court, and that Garret Taylor kid, wow, where was he last year, number six? He’s really come along.”
Martinez said it was impossible for players to not feel the pressure of the situation throughout the match.
“I call it ‘concrete elbows.’ When I see that,” Martinez said, “I tell them to take a deep breath and just blast it. Let it rip.”
While the season isn’t completely over yet — Colby Taylor and McIlravy play in 1A state doubles Friday and Saturday in Waterloo — Cooper was reflective about his senior-dominated squad’s success in recent years. This season ended with a 7-4 dual record.
“We got in the state’s final eight, back to back years,” Cooper said. “We played well in beating Atlantic this morning, after they beat us to start the year at their place. With Red Oak, we knew there would be three really close matches. It would come down to whoever got those swing matches. Give them credit for coming away with those matches today.”
Creston/O-M 5, Atlantic 1
Singles — Colby Taylor (Cr) def. Tyler Fischer (Atl), 6-4, 6-4; Bryce McIlravy (Cr) def. Noah Welter (Atl), 6-4, 6-0; Garret Taylor (Cr) def. Jake Arneson (Atl), 6-4, 6-1; Adam Bochart (Cr) def. Adam Wieser (Atl), 6-3, 5-7, 6-1; Nick Podhajsky (Atl) def. Jacob Caviness (Cr), 6-2, 6-4; Ryan Cook (Cr) def. Scott Caslow (Atl), 6-0, 0-6, 6-4.
Doubles — Jones-Roberts (Cr) def. Smith-James (H), 6-2.
Red Oak 5, Creston/O-M 3
Singles — Pete Walker (RO) def. Colby Taylor (Cr), 6-1, 6-0; Jordan Nelson (RO) def. Bryce McIlravy (Cr), 6-4, 5-7, 6-3; Garret Taylor (Cr) def. Geoff Sellers (RO), 6-2, 6-4; Adam Bochart (Cr) def. Austin Streicher (RO), 6-3, 7-6 (7-1); Tanner Johnson (RO) def. Jacob Caviness (Cr), 6-2, 6-4; Ryan Cook (Cr) def. Hayden Berry (RO), 6-2, 6-0.
Doubles — Pete Walker-Hayden Berry (RO) def. Colby Taylor-Bryce McIlravy (Cr), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4; Geoff Sellers-Austin Streicher (RO) def. Ryan Cook-Jacob Caviness (Cr), 6-1, 2-6, 6-3; Garret Taylor-Adam Bochart (Cr) tied with Jordan Nelson-Tanner Johnson (RO), 6-3, 6-7 (10-8 tiebreaker) when match ended.
(Red Oak defeated Ballard in semifinals, 5-2.)