Always one to set the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association Division I district championship as a goal before every season, New Albany coach Marc Thomas found himself short of words after the Eagles clinched their fifth consecutive state berth.
Maybe that was because none of the team’s previous four district finals concluded quite like the Eagles’ 3-2 win over visiting Dublin Jerome on May 20.
First-singles player Declan Freedhoff kept New Albany’s hopes alive by erasing a 3-0 deficit in the second set to defeat Max Fickas 6-3, 7-5, but the biggest comeback came at first doubles. Trailing 5-2 in the second set and facing triple match point, Ben Bilenko and Abhinav Dandu rallied to beat Tanish Pairu and Max Stratford 6-3, 7-6, 6-2 in a match that took almost 2.5 hours.
“The mental toughness it took to pull this one out, it’s an amazing win,” Thomas said. “This is one of the best ones I’ve been a part of. To come back at first doubles the way we did and have Declan Freedhoff put the team on his back di lui and win his match, this is a match I will remember for a long time. “
New Albany improved to 13-1 and will play Cincinnati Sycamore or Mason in a state semifinal May 29 at Upper Arlington. The championship and third-place matches will be later that day against Findlay, Massillon Jackson, Solon or Westlake.
Jerome’s wins came at second singles, where Eli Wiblin swept Jackson Clements 6-3, 6-0, and third singles, where Kevin Liu beat Halen Hamstead 6-2, 6-2.
The first-doubles match outlasted the singles matches by about an hour, drawing the full attention of the crowd.
“I knew if I stuck to my game and played with a clear mind, I could come back,” said Freedhoff, who will play doubles with Bilenko in the OHSAA Division I state individual tournament May 27 and 28 at Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason . “It was incredible what (Bilenko and Dandu) did. They never gave up. We’re thrilled to get back to state. “
Jerome finished dual matches at 12-4.
“It hurts. I’m not going to lie, it hurts, ”Celtics coach Ken Berlin said. “It’s not like we made too many errors. (New Albany) played big in the big situations and earned everything they got. “
Austin Flamm fought off 10 match points to outlast Columbus Academy’s Jacob Khvalsky 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (6-2) at third singles, securing a 3-2 win for host Bexley in the OTCA district final.
The Lions will compete at state for the first time since winning the title in 2017.
“I was relieved (after winning match point),” Flamm said. “(Khvalsky) was struggling with low slices, and he was trying to hit a winner. I kept fighting, kept the ball in play and kept digging down. “
Bexley rallied from a 2-0 deficit. The Vikings won both doubles courts, but the Lions swept the singles courts in three sets each.
Sam Lessard defeated Lucas Xue 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 at first singles and Stefan Schiff rallied to win at second singles over Ryan Panley, who retired because of injury when the score was 5-7, 7-6 (7 -5), 5-1.
“It was great to rally back like that, especially Stef and Austin,” said Bexley coach Will Gingery, whose team improved to 13-7. “Stef lost the first set and was down 5-4 with the kid serving for the match, and he still came back and won.
“Austin’s game is different with slicing, lobbing and stuff like that, but I kept stressing to him to make the (Academy) kid hit one more shot. He did that and was able to win. “
The Vikings’ Saagar Arya and Rowan Lo defeated Robby Meyer and Blake Simons 6-4, 6-3 at first doubles. Jake Stouffer and Jas Vandrasi defeated Mitchell Giller and Drew Solar 6-2, 6-0 at second doubles.
The Lions play Cincinnati Indian Hill in a semifinal May 29 at UA. The other semifinal features Pepper Pike Orange against Bryan or Lexington. The championship and third-place matches also will be played that day.
Bexley lost to Academy 3-2 on April 7 in MSL-Ohio Division play.
“Academy beat us 3-2 early in the season, but we weren’t healthy then,” Gingery said. “Stef (had an abdominal injury and) was serving underhand, and we had a makeshift lineup. I know these guys have had this date circled for a while, and I’m proud of them. “