This is what it sounds like to win a state championship in tennis:
Yay! Woohoo! Hoorah! Yay! Yay!
Shhhhhh, quiet please, shhhhh.
That was the scene Friday evening at Stowe High School, as the girls’ tennis team won the state title over South Burlington. Freshman Kate Tilgner had just defeated her opponent, Lilla Erdos, 6-0, 6-0, winning the fourth match and clinching the crown for Stowe. But fellow freshman Gabby Doehla was still playing, and all attention went to the final match of the night, because in high school tennis, it doesn’t matter if you’ve already won it all — you’ve still got to play it all.
Doehla dispatched her opponent, Anna Bennett, 6-3, 6-4, despite Bennett going on something of a late-set tear, leaving spectators and teammates wondering if the two girls would have to play a tiebreaker set to finish what had already been decided.
Only after Doehla won did the cheering start up again in earnest, thus capping Stowe’s perfect 12-0 season. Coach Joanna Graves said the girls had a target on their back all season, but they just rolled with it and got better every match.
“It’s not easy to have a perfect season, I’ll tell you that,” Graves laughed. “It’s much harder to be that top seed and deliver, and all of our girls, from the freshmen to the seniors, delivered.”
In tennis, teams play seven matches — five singles and two doubles — and each match counts as a point.
Stowe’s senior captain, Skyler Graves, daughter of Joanna — and assistant coach Pete — set the tone for the championship by securing the first set of the contest.
Graves exhibited patience, preparation and prediction against South Burlington’s Rayna Brosseau, winning in leisurely straight sets, 6-2, 6-2.
Brosseau was the more aggressive player of the two, scoring multiple times on net-charging overhead smashes into the corners behind Graves.
But Graves continued to exhibit the poise that helped make her the top individual player in the state. She didn’t hit the ball as hard as Brosseau did, but she consistently returned whatever came her way, patiently participating in dozen-stroke rallies that became hypnotic in their metronomic cadence, until she invariably either slipped one by Brosseau or — more often — waited for Brosseau to return it long and out of bounds.
“My strokes aren’t as strong as some of these girls, and I think my biggest strength is being able to get to the balls, just having the stamina to do that,” Graves said afterward.
Within mere seconds of Graves’ win, Stowe’s top doubles team of senior Abbie Rice and junior Annabel Stevens defeated Emma Shedleur and Melissa Rosowsky to put Stowe up 7-2. Rice and Stevens had rolled through their first set 6-1, but Shedleur and Rosowsky forged what looked like a comeback in the second.
Stowe’s top dubs dug in, though, pulling out a 7-5 win and giving Stowe its second point. Both Stowe girls said they got a little caught up in the moment, playing in front of scores of fans from both schools shouting out staccato bits of praise and encouragement.
“I think we were mostly focusing on the atmosphere around here, and there’s a lot of people and, I guess, nerves,” Rice said.
Stevens said South Burlington’s forced her and Rice to swap up how they normally hold court — Friday saw Rice playing the back line and Stevens attacking the net.
“We couldn’t just focus on what our specialties, or what we thought our specialties, were,” Rice said. “We had to be better at both and kind of adapt to that.”
The championship’s main source of drama came from the middle of the order, during the second and third singles matches and the second doubles match.
South Burlington’s No. 2, Izzy Partilo, defeated Natalie Doehla in hard-earned straight sets 7-6, 6-2. Partilo’s patience paid off as she essentially weathered a barrage of unorthodox attacks from Doehla that were either in-bounds and impossible to get to or just errantly out. That was particularly true in the first set, which seemed to wear out Doehla, allowing Partilo to bring South Burlington its first point.
The Wolves’ second point came in the second doubles match, as Ranjani Suthuraman and Winnie Adamson defeated Olivia Carey and Morgan McKenna, 6-3, 6-4.
Before Tilgner and Gabby Doehla brought the title home in the final two singles matches, another freshman was Friday’s fulcrum.
Charlotte Stevens, playing in the third singles match, defeated South Burlington’s Sage Bennett in a grueling first-to-10 tiebreaker, 6-3, 5-7, 10-7.
After losing the first set, Bennett took the momentum back and scored point after point from a series of Stevens’ shots that went into the net instead of over it. If it seemed like a historically long second set to the scores of fans with white knuckles spread out over the hill outside the cage, they weren’t alone — Stevens just wanted out.
“Sometimes, when you’re stuck in a set, you just have to keep doing what you’re doing because you’re behind and it’s hard to change things up,” she said. “But once I got into the tiebreaker, I’m like, OK, I’m gonna switch it up.”
Even though the tiebreaker remained knotted up until 6-6, there was still a sense that Bennett had ceded momentum back to Stevens.
“I just try to play every point like it’s a normal point and not try to think of it's the deciding point or not,” she said.
Coach Graves agreed that Stevens and the rest of the team remained cool under pressure, during the championships and all season, and never once got frustrated with each other, never bickered.
“Tennis is an easy game to beat yourself,” Graves said. “Every one of them in that final match dug deep.”
Friday’s state title capped a 12-0 undefeated season for the Raiders, who, like everyone else in Vermont, didn’t play a single contest in 2020. They rarely lost a single match in 2021. As the team built up its regular-season record of 9-0 — seven of those in a score of 7-0 — the word got out around the state that Stowe was the team to beat.
South Burlington coach Jake Agna, who has been coaching for 37 years, and has a long, warm relationship with the Graveses, said he and his team knew what they were up against coming into Friday.
“We’ve got great kids, good athletes, but they got some tennis players who really showed up,” Agna said, adding when he saw Graves and Tilgner and Gabby Doehla take the individual singles and doubles crowns the previous week, he saw a different team than earlier in the season.
“They’ve gotten a lot better,” Agna said. “The team that wins is usually the team that, throughout the year, progresses. And they progressed.”
Graves echoed that sentiment, adding the Wolves had improved since the Raiders first faced them earlier in the season.
As for the Raiders, senior leaders Graves and Rice may be moving on, but coach Graves has plenty to be excited about for next year, as Friday’s hopes floated on the shoulders of three ninth-graders. As for her daughter?
“After this crazy year, we’re so lucky that we got to play tennis and have a normal season,” Skyler Graves said. “We’re just really lucky.”