There was no chance that Jessica Ampel and Abbey Moore were going down without a fight Friday at the Illinois High School Association girls state tennis tournament.
The ETHS doubles players may come on like lambs — but they both play with the heart of a lion.
That grittiness led to one of the most successful doubles runs in school history before it ended with a super tiebreaker loss to Belleville West’s Kaylie Cornley and Ellen Binion in the consolation round at Rolling Meadows High School.
In their second straight appearance at the IHSA finals — few Wildkit girls doubles teams have qualified in back-to-back years — the Evanston seniors won 3 of 5 tournament matches over two days. Last year they posted a 1-2 record at State.
And Moore secured a signature win of her own when she was voted as the statewide winner of the Sportsmanship Award by members of the tennis coaches association.
The team of Moore/Ampel bowed out with a 7-5, 2-6, 3-10 loss to the Belleville West duo in the fifth round of the consolation bracket. They opened Thursday with wins over Katie Toohill and Olivia Kraft of Normal Community (6-1, 6-4) and Hailey Bruning/Mary Kate Burchett of Lockport (6-0, 6-0) before running into the tournament’s No. 4 seed, Danielle Burich and Erica Oku of Hinsdale Central, and bowing by a 6-1, 6-0 margin.
The pair combined Ampel’s power with Moore’s guile at the net Friday morning to defeat Hanna Swarm and Sabrina Chow of Naperville Central 6-4, 4-6, 10-8 before ending their season in the double-elimination tourney.
“They won it — we didn’t lose it,” pointed out Moore after losing to Belleville West and finishing the season with partner Ampel at 20 wins and 9 losses. “They were really aggressive and usually that’s the way we like to play.”
“We played well at the beginning of the match,” added Ampel, “but their lobs really got better and better against us. But I’m happy with the way we played here. We made the shots we hard to make for the most part, and we executed most of the time when we needed to.”
Ampel/Moore had to overcome an early 3-1 deficit against the Belleville West pair in the first set, and needed an ace serve from Ampel to pull into a 5-5 tie. The Kits trailed 15-40 before rallying to win the next game, then captured the set on an unforced error by West.
West dominated the second set, however, and Evanston never led in the third set super tiebreaker due to several hitting errors down the stretch.
Although they fell short in that super tiebreaker, Ampel and Moore benefited from head coach Joyce Anderson’s season-long strategy to help prepare them for critical moments when they faced elimination in the postseason.
At various times during the regular season, Anderson would interrupt Wildkit team practices to call out “this is sudden death”, putting pressure on both sides of the net with the winner of the next point in matches prevailing.
The losers? They ran laps.
Ampel and Moore were able to dig down deep and rally to win against Naperville Central in a third set format where teams in the consolation bracket weren’t allowed to play a full set. The ETHS duo trailed 7-5 — only three points away from elimination — when they staged a rally and got to 10 points first.
Ampel’s overhead smash kept the Kits close, and Naperville lost the next two points in extended rallies that finished with long volleys. Ampel’s volley at the net upped the ETHS advantage to 9-7, and Moore duplicated her teammate’s effort at the net to secure the 10th point.
”We’re both fighters and we’re used to fighting back like that,” Ampel said. “I think we play better when we’re fighting from behind.”
Both players were happy that Anderson put them back together as a doubles team following an early season experiment with other partners.
“We had some good freshmen coming in and we wanted to see what it would look like if we put them in doubles,” the coach said. “But that only lasted for two or three matches. We knew we had to put Jessica and Abbey back together again so they could get enough wins to get a seed for the state tournament.
“They’ve really improved a lot from last year. It’s like night and day. We can come out of this on a real positive note because they had great careers and really grew. Last year they were a good doubles team — this year, they were great. Jessica helped support Abbey and that made her a much more confident player this year. They’re both very coachable, and that’s why they improved so much. They’re excellent students who were able to figure out how to play doubles. Not everyone can do that. ”
Moore didn’t play much organized tennis before coming to ETHS — her focus was on dance — but developed her game by learning to play the angles, especially at the net.
“I think this year we were a lot more comfortable playing together,” Moore said. “Our goal was to do better (at State) than we did last year, and we did a lot better.”
“I think we communicated a lot better this year,” Ampel explained. “We just seemed to fit really well together. It’s good that we had a chance to grow together like we did.”
Moore’s growth included her impact as a sportsman and the award that she was presented with at the conclusion of the rain-delayed three-day state meet on Saturday.
“That award only goes to one person in the state, so I am very, very excited about it,” said the ETHS senior. “My freshman year I’d call everything in, and when I called something out I’d feel bad about it even though Coach Anderson would tell me some of those shots I called in were actually out.
“I think sportsmanship is important. It’s important that you do things the right way. I feel better about myself when I play fairly. It’s not fun to play the politics out there and it’s not fun to cheat, either.”
“I’ve known Abbey for so long and to see her accomplish so much is really pretty awesome,” Anderson said. “I know a lot of players in the state are really surprised and excited for her to win that award. She and Jessica became a team that really knew they could rely on each other.”