JACKSON – Sherry Rial knew her Tupelo tennis team could win its fourth consecutive state championship Monday if her girls No. 2 doubles team won its match.
She wanted to let Bess Ruff and Leslie Hamm know it was up to them.
They wouldn’t let her.
“I talked to them and they told me, ‘Don’t tell us we have to have this court!'” the first-year Golden Wave coach said, then smiled. “I felt like it would come down to our girls doubles. They stepped it up.”
Ruff and Hamm won their court, beating Oak Grove’s Ali Norman and Merideth Lucas 6-3, 6-3 to clinch Tupelo a 4-3 victory at Parham Bridges Tennis Center and give the program its tenth overall state title.
Ruff, a senior, and Hamm, a sophomore, were leading 4-1 in the second set when the Wave’s mixed doubles team of eighth grader Kat Stratton and sophomore Zac Baldwin lost their match, 6-2, 7-5, to Oak Grove to tie the match at 3-3.
“We realized it would come down to us,” said Ruff, whose grandmother, Puddie Ruff, coached Tupelo to state tennis titles in 1985 and ’86. “We knew we had to tough it out and battle it out.”
Ruff, who didn’t join the tennis team until last season, said she grew up playing soccer.
“My grandmother tried to teach me to play, but I was always too busy with select soccer,” she said. “Tennis is a big deal for our family and it’s a big deal for me to be a part of that legacy.”
Catherine Holliday, a senior, quickly dismissed Oak Grove’s Karla Norwood 6-0, 6-0, then anxiously watched the rest of her teammates play.
“I was hoping everybody would get through it,” Holliday said. “I was cheering them on.”
She added that this was “nerve-racking” to watch her friends, Ruff and Hamm, participate in such a crucial match.
“I didn’t want to make them nervous,” Holliday said. “I just let them play.”
Tupelo’s No. 1 girls doubles team of senior Mandy Collins and Tate Davis defeated Taylor Vilarreal and Janne Norwood 6-3, 6-1 while the No. 1 boys doubles team of senior Jeff Hamm and junior Jonathan Doles stopped Gonzalo Bienati and Ben Hurston 6-3, 6-2.
Tupelo eighth grader Aaron Hildenbrand fell to Brock Hurston 6-0, 6-0, while the No. 2 Wave boys doubles team of seniors Drew Toppin and Chris White lost to Zach Shurden and Chanin Cooley 6-2, 6-3.
“We’ve got a lot of seniors in our program,” said Rial, whose team finished with a 11-3 record. “We’re going to be really young. It will be a challenge to make it back next year.”
Individual play begins
In the opening round of individual state tournament play, Tupelo had three winners.
In girls singles, Catherine Holliday defeated Southaven’s Marina Cardoso 6-0, 6-0; Collins and Davis topped Greenville’s Jimmetta Williams and Rachael Duffin 6-2, 6-2 in No. 1 girls doubles; and White and Toppin beat Meridian’s Andrew Dayton and William Jackson 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in No. 2 boys doubles.
In boys singles, Doles lost to Northwest Rankin’s Christian Branning 6-1, 6-0 while the No. 1 boys doubles team of Jeff Hamm and Aaron Hildenbrand lost 6-2, 6-4 to Hancock’s Sean Robinson and Adam Rhoades.
Gene Phelps/NEMS Daily Journal