La PORTE — For the first roughly half an hour on Wednesday, La Porte's boys tennis team duked it out with New Prairie.
After coming in as the prohibitive favorite to win the sectional, and coming off a sectional semifinal loss to the Cougars last year, the Slicers found themselves in a dogfight against a county nemesis.
But gradually La Porte found its footing and began to assert itself.
The Slicers claimed both doubles spots to take a 2-0 lead, then finished off New Prairie at No. 3 singles, prevailing 3-2 in the La Porte Sectional semifinals at the LeRoy Courts in Kesling Park.
“I'm obviously very happy we won,” Slicers coach Don Varda said. “We were real sluggish. We didn't play well. You've got to give New Prairie a lot of credit. They played hard. They pushed us to the limit. But we did what it takes to win.”
To begin the match, La Porte's Liam Wolf and Brock Schultz rolled 6-1, 6-0 at No. 2 doubles over Haydon Houser and Wreese Hemphill. Carson Stalbaum and Tristen Poe followed by defeating Colten Kitchen and Josh Ferrell 6-4, 6-4 at No. 1 doubles.
“Our No. 2 doubles came out real strong,” Varda said. “Liam Wolf and Brock Schultz really played well and did a nice job right out of the gate and stayed tough. And then, Alex (Ake) did, too. I was really proud of him.”
Ake then secured the hard-fought victory for the Slicers (15-6) by outlasting Jacob Hannon 7-6 (9-7), 6-3 at No. 3 singles.
Ake rallied from a 5-4 deficit in the opening set to capture it in a tiebreaker, 9-7.
“I feel like I'm just here to have fun and winning's pretty fun,” Ake said. “That mentality helps.”
At No. 2 doubles, Wolf and Schultz quickly dispatched their opponent in the first set to take control.
Varda praised his No. 2 doubles duo.
"They had good practice Tuesday," he said. "They were moving their feet, they were playing aggressive. They were going after the ball, just making plays."
The No. 1 doubles pairing of Stalbaum and Poe also prevailed after getting a test from Kitchen and Ferrell. After claiming the first set 6-4, Stalbaum and Poe trailed 2-1 in the second. They clawed back, though, and took the next two games to go ahead 3-2 in that set en route to the straight-set victory, 6-4.
“Our No. 1 doubles team has been playing really well all year,” Varda continued. “They're really good this year. I thought they would win their point.”
Despite the loss, New Prairie coach Joel Hostetler remained upbeat, as his squad earned a 16-5 record this season.
“I couldn't be prouder of my team,” Hostetler said. “We got beat 5-0 four weeks ago by these guys and to only lose 3-2, that was excellent. Wrigley (Hemphill) fought back in three sets at No. 2 and played great. Nick (Boyd) won a great match at No. 1 singles. Good luck to La Porte. Their doubles was really strong.”
At No. 1 singles, the Cougars' Nick Boyd, only a sophomore, edged Andy Emmons 7-5, 7-5, in a grueling contest to advance in the individual state tournament. Boyd's next match date and time is to be determined.
Boyd was down early in the opening set, before rallying to capture it. Later, he was staring at a 5-4 deficit in the ensuing set, before fighting back and claiming three straight games to seal his match, 7-5.
“I'm very happy for him,” Hostetler said. “We've been working on his mental game and his patience, and it's really, really paying off. He was being patient, but then when he had the opportunity, he forced the issue by coming to the net and playing some great points at the net. He just played a fantastic mental game.”
Wrigley Hemphill was victorious as well for the Cougars at No. 2 singles, downing Graham Siefker in a three-set marathon, 6-2, 2-6, 6-2.
New Prairie didn't have any seniors in its sectional lineup, so all of its team will return intact next year.
La Porte, meanwhile, was eager to knock off the Cougars after falling 3-2 to them in a sectional semifinal a season ago.
"It was definitely like, 'Alright, we're not letting that happen again, for sure,'" Ake added. "It feels good to get redemption here."
Michigan City beat crosstown foe Marquette 4-1 in the other semifinal, so the Slicers and Wolves face off for the sectional title at 4:30 p.m. today.
La Porte blanked City 5-0 in their regular-season match on September 3.
La Porte Sectional
La Porte 3, New Prairie 2