Wednesday was a dream run for Niceville. Thursday morning was more like a nightmare.
A day after flexing its collective muscle en route to a leaderboard-topping 12-0 record, Niceville opened Thursday with an 0-5 mark in the singles championships.
Once comfortably ahead of Barron Collier 12-7, the lead had dwindled to 12-9.
But Niceville didn’t panic. The Eagles didn’t pout. They didn’t make excuses. They didn’t dwell on a bad shot here or there.
Instead, they did what they’ve done all season: Find a way to win.
Sam Sepe and Antonia Poate won their No. 1 doubles semifinal match in straight sets and then Barron Collier dropped a third-set tiebreaker to Creekside in the other No. 1 doubles semifinal, securing the Eagles’ first state title in program history. The Eagles’ final tally was 13 points, edging Creekside and Barron Collier by a couple of points.
“There was so much pressure, but it was the kind we wanted,” said senior Antonia Poate, who now has a team state title in golf and tennis. “We knew if we played our game and went out there and did what we needed to do, we’d walk off with a victory for our team. It was just an honor to be in that spot in the first place, and I’m so glad Sam and I could pull it out.”
“I’m so proud of Sammy and Antonia for pulling out that win,” said freshman phenom Andi VonHilsheimer. “They came through when we needed them most, just like they’ve done all season. Really, the whole team came through.”
Niceville head coach Chris Poate never doubted his team, even after the slow start to Thursday.
“After singles, honestly I was still confident and thought we had a good chance in both doubles,” he said. “We started off strong in both, and we got that big win. … It was a very clutch effort.”
As the case during the Eagles’ impressive postseason run, from top to bottom every player contributed. The proof is in the disbursement of points.
District champion and junior transfer Sam Sepe took her undefeated season all the way into the No. 1 singles finals, securing two points for the Eagles.
Junior Maddie Hsiang, a two-time district champion, and her loose style of play took her to the No. 2 finals and shored up two points, and she teamed up with sister and senior Monica to wrap up a point in the No. 2 doubles slot. Meanwhile, four-time district champion and senior Alexis Hruby embraced the role of a senior leader and made it to the finals in the No. 3 spot.
Anchoring the lineup, senior Antonia Poate won her opening- and semifinal-round matches in the No. 4 spot to earn her two points, and Andi VonHilsheimer was one set shy of winning the No. 5 singles title in wrapping up her two points. Add in Sepe and Poate’s runner-up finish in the top doubles spot, and there were no stragglers.
“Every point was needed,” coach Poate said.
Added Sepe, “We’re definitely one team and not just one or two people carrying the load. We win and lose as a team.”
And finally VonHilsheimer, “That’s the thing with tennis, it’s an individual match but it’s also a team sport. Every point you play is for your team, and everybody carried their weight. Everybody came through in one way or another.”
Even with the 0-5 singles record, Niceville had at least a share of the title before Creekside and Barron Collier took the court in the doubles semifinal match. But the Eagles weren’t content with sharing the crown.
Once Creekside won 10-8 in the third-set tiebreaker, they knew they wouldn’t have to. And the ensuing celebration was fittingly exuberant.
“Antonia jumped into my arms,” said senior and four-time district champion Hruby, who noted she wasn’t immediately aware the team had clinched. “We all kind of jumped into each other’s arms.”
“We knew we had it in the bag,” Poate said. “We just went crazy. I jumped on Alexis.”
Echoed freshman phenom Andi VonHilsheimer, “It was just kind of a blur. There was some math confusion, but that passed and everybody just embraced.”