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Stick around long enough in the Illinois High School Association state tennis tournament series, and you might get a bucket of ice water dumped over your head.
That was a welcome part of the celebration for Evanston’s Alex Robinson and Ben Ward on the final day of competition at the New Trier Sectional on Saturday.
The Wildkit players combined for a 3rd place finish in doubles play and punched a ticket to the IHSA state finals next week, becoming the first Evanston players to advance that far since Alec Avery and Max Newman in 2017. The pair led Evanston to a runnerup finish in the team standings with 17 points to 35 for champion New Trier in the 9-team sectional field.
Robinson and Ward had already secured an automatic State berth by winning two matches on Friday. They then dropped a 6-1, 6-2 decision to New Trier’s Matthew Plunkett and Jay Wagh in the semfinals on Saturday before bouncing back to outlast Russell Rosa and Anuj Patel of Niles North by a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 margin to claim 3rd place.
The ability to win 3 of 4 matches at what is usually one of the toughest sectionals in the state kept the season alive for the two ETHS seniors, who are near the end of a long journey to the postseason.
The pair has only played as a doubles unit for about 3 weeks, with Robinson moving over from his singles slot to join Ward. The trip to State will be an especially satisfying one, considering both players missed out on a possible bid last year due to the coronavirus pandemic and weren’t even sure there would be a state tournament to play in this spring.
Ward suffered tough losses in doubles in the second round in both 2018 and 2019, with different partners each year, and was especially appreciative of the chance to keep playing competitively next week.
The state finals will be held next Thursday through Saturday at various sites throughout the northwest suburbs.
“I had about a 3 month break after the pandemic started, and it was hard not having the experience of playing my junior year,” said Ward, cooled off by that ice water dunking in the 95-degree heat. “It was something we had to fight through mentally, but we stepped it up here at the end.
“I’ve been waiting for this for 4 years now. I was really close my freshman and sophomore years, and it feels so amazing to finally get to State. It’s so nice to be able to step up in this situation.”
“To me, that first moment on Friday (after scoring the 2 wins needed to reach the semis) was a big relief,” added Robinson. “Now as seniors we’re just glad we even have a state tournament to go to. We came into today with the attitude that we had nothing to lose.
“Ben is the doubles player here, and I’m more of a singles player. It was a hard adjustment at first, but I learned a lot fast.”
Evanston head coach Marcus Plonus said the fact that the duo lived up to that top 4 sectional seed was no surprise.
“They probably deserved to go to State a couple of years ago,” Plonus said. “And they definitely deserve it now. I’m just so proud of both of them. With this win (over Niles North) they should probably get a decent seed at State, and like you saw today, if they’re on, they can do well.
“Alex has had a cold — it’s been going through the team for the past week — and he was dragging a little today. And Ben’s serving has been an issue, too. Even though he’s a senior captain, I had a talk with him a couple of weeks ago and told him he wasn’t working as hard as he needed to. So he started working a half hour after practice every day on his serve, and that’s helped him.”
The Wildkit standouts opened with wins over Daniel Geraghty/Dominic Peric of Niles West (6-1, 6-0) and Nico D’Orazio/Ari Ayenberg of Glenbrook North (6-1, 6-2) before stumbling Saturday morning against New Trier.
In the 3rd place match, they reeled off wins in four straight games in the first set, then watched as Niles North’s Rosa and Patel dug down deep in sweltering conditions to find the energy for a win that forced a decisive 3rd set.
Both sides held serve through the first 8 games, with the lefty Ward’s ace knotting the score at 4-4. ETHS finally broke through with Ward forcing Rosa into a backhand error, and the Kit seniors won 5 of the next 6 points to clinch the victory.
Evanston’s other singles and doubles entries all scored splits in their matches. The doubles team of Zander Block and Chauncey Wadsworth opened with a 6-1, 6-1 win over Jacob Robbins and Lucas Peppers of Lane Tech, then bowed out with a 6-2, 6-0 loss to Glenbrook North’s Matthew Park and Brandon Chie.
Freshman Finn Pollard, who played doubles with Ward for much of the season, eliminated Loyola’s Sam Cho with a 6-3, 6-0 win and then was sidelined himself after losing 7-5, 6-2 to the eventual singles runnerup, fellow freshman Konrad Kwiatkowski of Glenbrook North.
Gunner Andersen started strong in a 6-1, 6-3 trimming of Jason Isaac of GBN, then ran into the eventual champ, Nikita Filin of New Trier, and suffered a 6-1, 6-0 defeat.