GRANGER TWP. — Steve Smykal and Logan Gsellman won’t be part of a regular-season Suburban League championship team to cap their prep tennis careers, but the Highland seniors experienced the thrill of competing for the title Monday at Paramount Tennis Club.
The upstart Hornets ran into the buzzsaw known as the Copley Indians, who justified their No. 5 ranking in the latest Ohio Tennis Coaches Association Division I state poll by rolling to a 5-0 victory.
“I’m so proud of our team,” first singles player Smykal said. “We exceeded all expectations, so I’m happy with how we did this year.”
Highland (11-3) and Copley (14-1), whose lone loss is to powerful Cincinnati Sycamore, the state’s second-ranked D-I team, brought identical 6-0 SL records into the match.
However, the Indians, who last year lost in the semifinals of the state team tournament to eventual champion Upper Arlington, were considered a rather large favorite by most. Other than first singles, where Jarad Pennington lost to two-time reigning SL champion Jacob Dunbar of Cloverleaf, no Copley players had dropped a match in league play.
That dominance continued against the Hornets, who did not win a set.
“We all knew it was going to be a tough one to win — probably our toughest one of the season,” said Gsellman, who played first doubles with freshman Ben Kelly and lost 6-2, 6-1 to brothers Austin and Gavin Aten. “It was a lot of fun, because this is a good group of guys.
“Me personally, I didn’t focus as much on statistics. I’m a senior, so I came out and had fun.”
Highland has never won an SL regular-season, tournament or overall title in boys tennis, while Copley is a virtual lock to repeat as overall SL champion after securing the regular-season crown. The league tournament, to be held Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Medina High courts, counts the other 50 percent toward the overall title.
Hornets second singles player Michael Hutchings, a junior, and third singles player Joshua Hadler, a sophomore, entered the Copley match undefeated in SL play, but Hutchings fell 6-2, 6-0 to Andrew Ong and Hadler lost 6-1, 6-1 to Alan Du.
Highland’s second doubles team of junior Vince Luth and freshman Michael Joyce dropped a 6-3, 6-2 decision to twin brothers Matt and Nick Adzema.
“We’re building,” 10th-year Hornets coach Lisa Reynolds said. “Our singles players are improving every match. Copley is a strong team. When someone plays as well as they’ve played, you just have to tip your hat to them.”
The best match of the afternoon was at first singles, where Highland’s Smykal lost 7-6 (7), 6-3 to longtime friend and fellow Paramount Tennis Club member Pennington in a 2-hour, 15-minute marathon.
“It’s hard playing a friend you grew up with, but he played really well,” the classy Smykal said. “My hat’s off to him.”
Smykal, who turned down a combination athletic-academic scholarship that would have covered almost all his costs at the University at Buffalo, will forego college tennis to attend the University of Colorado, where he plans to major in astronomy.
The senior was definitely Highland’s brightest star against Copley, staying on the court more than twice as long as any of his teammates, though he would probably be the last person to point that out.
In a battle between heavy hitting baseliners who could also come in and volley if given a short ball, Smykal was serving at 5-4, 40-15, but failed to close out the first set.
To his credit, he regrouped in what proved to be a fantastic tiebreaker, which was deadlocked 6-6 when Smykal played a ball that appeared to be a few inches out. He stared at the line long after the point was over, but “out” calls must be made immediately.
“I knew it was close,” Smykal said with a smile. “If I’m not 100 percent sure, I’m not going to call it out. That’s just the way I play the game.”
Smykal won the next point to knot the tiebreaker at 7 — he would have won it 8-6 had he captured the previous point — before Pennington won two straight points to finally end the first set.
“The tiebreaker was crucial,” Smykal said. “He had some momentum.”
In a match where almost every point was long and seemingly every game went to deuce, Pennington used that momentum to jump to a 3-1 lead in the second set. He then broke Smykal in a marathon game that featured nine deuces to go up 4-1, seemingly giving him total control of the match.
But just when it appeared as though Smykal might be done, he rattled off two straight games to pull within 4-3 — he was down 15-40 in the latter — before Pennington closed things out.
“After the first set, I was pretty winded,” Smykal said. “He got up on me in the second, but I seemed to find some second energy when I was down 4-1.”
The first singles players, who were highly competitive but cordial throughout, received a nice round of applause at the conclusion of their match, which capped a great SL regular season for the Hornets.
“That was fun,” Smykal said. “We had some great points. Individually and especially team-wise, it was fun to be in this position.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.