A year ago at this time, Clara Gruger found out the true meaning of the term mixed emotions.

Gruger fell one win short of qualifying for the Illinois High School Association state badminton tournament in singles competition, but made the trip to Charleston to support her Evanston teammates from the sidelines.

Now Gruger isn’t just going along for the ride. The ETHS senior captured the singles title at the Maine South Sectional tournament last Thursday, defeating teammate Sonia Sood in an all-Evanston championship match, and led the Wildkits to their first sectional team crown since 2003.

Evanston advanced the maximum number of qualifiers in singles and doubles and will open state tournament play on Friday at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. Joining Gruger and Sood are the doubles teams of Tess Brieva/Rebecca Conover and Keegan Joyce/Sarah Felvey, who qualified automatically with top four finishes at the sectional.

A three-set loss that eliminated her at the sectional as a junior was the low point of Gruger’s  career, which also consisted of four years in the girls volleyball program. But the loss also motivated her, and another year of experience under her belt has helped the senior standout recognize weaknesses in her opponents’ games.

“That match went to 3 and it was definitely a match I could’ve won,” Gruger recalled. “I just got tired and I didn’t do my best. It was a bummer, no doubt about it. I was pretty upset when I didn’t make it. But once I got down there (to Charleston), I was happy  just to be able to watch and to support my teammates.”

“Clara is a very good player and a very smart player, and I knew she had a lot to think about after last year,” said Evanston coach Karilyn Joyce. “So before the conference tournament I told her to just start playing one point at a time, one game at a time. I told her it’s a brand new year for her and I wanted her to understand that we’ve all moved on from last year.

“She’s done such a phenomenal job of us this year, and she’s done an awesome job (4th at the New Trier Featherfest, 2nd in the B flight at the Hinsdale ABCD tourney) in two tough tournaments. She starts slow but always plays better as the tournament goes along.”

That’s a formula that would serve Gruger well next weekend.

“This year I know the court more after playing another whole year, and I’m better at the strategy, too,” she said. “I’ve had certain games this year where I’d be down and then I’d realize that one certain shot is working. I’d discover what the other girls’ weakness was and that would help me pull out of it. I tend to be able to figure out what my strengths are.

“When I won the semifinal match at the sectional it was really nice to have that weight off my back. It wasn’t nearly as stressful after that.”

Gruger opened with wins over Clara Kochanski of Maine South (21-11, 21-7) and Nora Meyer of Prospect (21-9, 21-15) before meeting Sood in the title match. Sood, the only junior among Evanston’s qualifying group, had knocked off Jazzmine Klopack of Prospect (21-11, 21-12) and Izzy Kantor of Addison Trail (18-21, 21-14, 21-11) to reach the finals.

Gruger prevailed by a 21-12, 21-15 margin to earn the title. Evanston outscored Prospect 16 to 12.5 to bring back the team sectional plaque.

“Sonia and I were doubles partners all year and I play against her more than anyone else in practice,” Gruger said. “It’s usually anyone’s game when we play. It’s hit or miss from one day to the next.

“I’m proud that I was able to qualify this year and I just want to do my best at State. Having seen the whole dynamic last year will help. It’s so intimidating because you know these are the best badminton players around, and it’s way bigger and more intense than the other tournaments we play in. You have to just think of it as just another tournament.”

Gruger’s opportunity to move to the top of the singles ladder at ETHS — she played at the No. 6 position for much of the dual meet season — came when head coach Joyce finally came up with the successful doubles pairings of Joyce/Felvey and Brieva/Conover.

Joyce and Felvey placed 2nd at the sectional tourney, bowing to Prospect’s Stephanie Venturelli and Jessica Hirsh by a 21-6, 21-8 margin in the championship match. Brieva/Conover and Conover split four tournament matches, bouncing back from a 21-17 loss to Maine South’s Emma Wagner and Lisa Mak for a 21-6, 21-16 triumph in the consolation draw to earn that top four finish.

“We needed to find the right doubles teams and that’s the hardest thing to do,” coach Joyce said. “Now I feel like I have two great doubles teams. Rebecca has really stepped up as Tess’ partner in their first year together. There are a lot of good doubles teams down there, but I think these girls can go far.

“This year our goal is a two-night stay. We have to win that third match (Friday’s qualifying) to stay and I think we can do that. These are good kids and they’ve worked really hard to get there. They’ve done very well this year.”

And now they have a chance to do even more.