Coronavirus pandemic or not, high school athletes competing in every sport in Illinois still have one goal in mind for their seasons, and that’s to be peaking at the right time.

Emily Ho definitely saved her best for last.

The Evanston senior split four singles matches Wednesday at the Illinois High School Association state badminton tournament held at Hinsdale South High School in Darien, raising her own level of play and meeting the only postseason challenge of her career.

Ho scored victories over Maggie Cutrara of Homewood-Flossmoor (21-17, 16-21, 21-13) and Emmie Sathy of Glenbard East (21-17, 21-15) while bowing to the eventual third place finisher at State, Maggie Chen of Hinsdale South (21-3, 21-11). The ETHS standout was eliminated by a familiar foe, Alexandra Berns of Libertyville, in a hard-fought three-set battle by a margin of 23-21, 18-21, and 17-21.

Berns, who also beat Ho at the Buffalo Grove Sectional tournament, rallied from an 8-2 deficit in the second set after it looked like Ho was poised to advance to the next round Wednesday afternoon.

The hard-serving Libertyville player stayed alive by scoring the last 3 points of the second set in a 21-18 triumph. Trailing 11-10 in the third set at the “break,” she strung together 6 unanswered points to send Ho to the sidelines.

But there was no regret from the ETHS senior, who left it all on the court just like she planned prior to the tournament.

“I feel good when I get up like that [8-2 in the second set], but I also know there are others who go on winning streaks,” said Ho. “I tried to power through, but she’s a really good competitor. We’re pretty evenly matched, I think, and it just came down to who took each individual point. There were lots of really good rallies in that match.

“I tried to mix up my shots. I knew I couldn’t be predictable and I couldn’t aim for the same shots all the time, although sometimes I forget to do that.”

A mix of clears and smashes kept Berns off-balance for half the match before she turned the tables on Ho.

“She changed her shots up well against a good player, and I’m very proud of Emily,” said ETHS coach Karilyn Joyce. “I thought she played phenomenal today! Her finish [2-2 in the tournament) was totally beyond my expectations, especially considering we had no idea where anybody belonged [because of the abbreviated season].”

Ho finished the shortened season with a final won-loss record of 9-8. Ironically, it was her loss to the dynamic Chen (in the second round) that seemed to help the senior elevate her own game. The fact that she was able to score 11 points in the second set provided some momentum when she resumed play in the next round.

“It was actually fun playing against someone with such a skill set like that, against someone at such a high level,” Ho said. “I just took it one point at a time [in the second set] and I was able to practice some things. It was a good experience for me.”

Joyce, who has fielded state qualifiers in every year since taking over the program from Hall of Fame coach Shirley Nannini, said Ho’s success didn’t come as a surprise, even though the pandemic wiped out a potential chance for her to play at the state finals as a junior.

“When Emily came into the program you could see her quickness, and that she was a very smart player,” the coach explained. “And she has improved a lot since she came into the program. She’s definitely changed her game. Even from the start of the year she’s become a lot smoother out there. She played a lot of tough competition — look how many girls from the (Central Suburban) conference are here — and I’m very pleased with how she played.”

“I didn’t quite know what to expect, making it to the State tournament, and I’m grateful for the experience,” Ho said. “This was a nice way for me to end the season, and I’m really proud of just how far I’ve gotten this year.”       

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