La PORTE — Despite dropping the first set in sluggish fashion Tuesday, Tristen Poe and Carson Stalbaum didn’t waver.
Despite trailing 2-1 in the second, La Porte’s No. 1 doubles duo didn’t waver.
Despite a long deuce point and facing a few game points in the decisive third set, albeit with a 5-0 lead, they didn’t waver.
Poe and Stalbaum’s determination and dramatic three-set win helped the Slicers’ boys tennis team earn the third and final point to knock off Duneland Conference rival Valparaiso, 4-1, in its own regional semifinal to advance to today’s regional final.
“I couldn't ask for a better team to encourage us all the way around,” Stalbaum said. “That first set we made a lot of errors. But Valpo's a very, very good team. I've got to give credit to Will (Behrend). He's a great player. But just staying consistent and trying to keep the ball in play really helped us to come back."
After losing the opening set 6-3, Poe and Stalbaum sealed the match at No. 1 doubles, rebounding following playing lackluster early on. They prevailed in three sets, 3-6, 6-2, 6-0, over Matthew Levenda and Behrend. That set off a wild celebration on the No. 1 doubles court at the LeRoy Courts in Kesling Park.
The Slicers (17-6) avenged a 3-2 regular-season setback to the Vikings (9-8) from September 19.
“I was very confident we'd play well tonight,” La Porte coach Don Varda said. “The boys practiced extremely hard all week. The key for us was they took it as a team. These are pressure-cooker matches, a lot on the line. I said, 'Guys, none of you can win the match on your own. We have to play as a team. We'll win this as a team.'”
Poe and Stalbaum closed out their contest after Valpo hit a return shot of Poe's serve into the net. That allowed them to outlast Levenda and Behrend after numerous deuce points and facing a couple of game points.
“That last point was incredible,” Poe said. “Obviously, I couldn't have done it without my partner, keeping me up, keeping me in play. But really just having that mentality of going out there and knowing we can actually get this done and over with, get this win for our team.”
After staring at the aforementioned 2-1 hole in the second set, Poe and Stalbaum fought back. They captured the next two games to take control of that set en route to the 6-2 victory. They followed by seizing immediate command in the decisive final set, jumping ahead 3-0 in a mere matter of minutes.
"It was huge," Varda added of Poe and Stalbaum in their third set. "Once they settled down, started keeping the ball in play, then they started to play the way they're capable of. I really felt like after they won the second set, they were really on a roll."
To begin the match, La Porte’s Andy Emmons dispatched Calvin McMurtrey, 6-2, 6-3, at No. 1 singles.
Emmons was efficient in all facets of his game and built an early advantage in the first set. The senior broke serve to build a 2-1 cushion in that set, then breezed ahead 4-1, before claiming it 6-2. Emmons followed by leading 3-2 in the ensuing set and pulled away to ensure a straight-set decision, 6-3.
“Andy was in the zone tonight,” Varda said. “He was on fire. He played extremely well. He played aggressively the entire match and never let up.”
At No. 2 doubles, the youthful pairing of Liam Wolf and Brock Schultz downed Calvin VanBenthuysen and Zachary Tagalia 6-3, 6-4. That put the Slicers ahead 2-1. The sophomore Wolf and the freshman Schultz actually were down 3-2 in the opening set, however, they rallied to capture that set by reeling off four straight games. In the next set, Wolf and Schultz again clawed back after staring at a 4-3 deficit. They won the next two games to go ahead for good, though, and turn the tide of their match.
“It was tremendous leadership from Liam,” Varda said. “And Brock is playing better and better every time. I was really happy with his play.”
At No. 2 singles, the Slicers’ Graham Siefker dropped a 6-2, 6-1 decision to Spencer Ross, while Alex Ake prevailed 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (7-2) over Jacob Nightingale at No. 3 singles in a three-set marathon to close the match.
La Porte meets South Bend St. Joseph (23-1) for the regional crown at 4:30 p.m. today. The Indians beat Penn 4-1 in Tuesday’s other semifinal. New Prairie’s No. 1 singles player Nick Boyd plays in the individual state tournament at 4 p.m., also at the LeRoy Courts.
In the end, Varda was understandably elated with his squad's victory and the fact it'll play again.
"It was extremely thrilling for me," said the third-year coach. "It was my biggest win with La Porte's boys team for sure. It was a huge win. This isn't easy. This is a quality Valpo team and a well-coached team with extremely talented players."
La Porte Regional
La Porte 4, Valparaiso 1