About a week after Rowland Hall captured their first state title in boys tennis since 2011, Head Coach Tim Sleeper was still on cloud nine about the team's win. "There have been a couple of championships [throughout the years] that have stuck in my mind, and I think this will be one of them," he said.
In a drama-filled weekend that included Rowland Hall sophomore Peter Chase rallying from down 1-5 in the third set to win at #3 singles, the Winged Lions overcame a one-point deficit in the standings—to Waterford, nonetheless—by winning the final doubles match of the day.
It's not hard to understand what made this year's 3A State Tournament so memorable. In a drama-filled weekend that included Rowland Hall sophomore Peter Chase rallying from down 1-5 in the third set to win at #3 singles, the Winged Lions overcame a one-point deficit in the standings—to Waterford, nonetheless—by winning the final doubles match of the day.
Rowland Hall senior Soren Feola, who was paired with sophomore Justin Peng for the final match, recalled the intensity of the afternoon. "About halfway through our finals match, we found out that the state title rested on our shoulders. We pushed through the stress, even though everyone there was watching us," he said. "I think once that last point I hit was over, my mind went blank and all I could think was, 'Wow, I just did that for myself and my team.' I was filled with explosive happiness."
Coach Sleeper acknowledged that Soren had been in a similar position before but with different results, which only made this year that much more special. "The last shot of the whole tournament was Soren with an overhead to win the match," he said. "It was just really cool to see him come through and complete the journey."
The team's senior leadership, from Soren and #1 singles player Leif Thulin, and JV players Leo Doctorman and Chris Ausbeck, was a significant factor in this year's success. In particular, Coach Sleeper cited Leif's attitude and ability to bring the team together, whether at practice or during matches, as a consistent influence. "He deserves a lot of credit for what happened," Coach Sleeper said.
Complementing the senior leadership were outstanding performances from underclassmen, namely freshman Tucker Lee—who finished the season undefeated at #2 singles—and sophomores Justin and Peter. Coach Sleeper described Peter's attitude during his final match at the state tournament when he went to speak with him at the 5-2 changeover: "He had this energy I hadn't seen all season and this determination in his face. He said, 'I'm gonna do this' and he just went out and upped his game."
To have all my players rise to the occasion at the same time was thrilling. The whole team—they just outperformed themselves. —Coach Tim Sleeper
Celebrating a victory over rival Waterford added an extra layer of satisfaction to this year's championship, though Coach Sleeper has great respect for their longtime opponents. "Their coach is awesome," he said. "He makes a lot of good decisions and is always doing the right thing on and off the court, teaching good sportsmanship to his players."
Even in years when Rowland Hall lost to Waterford, Coach Sleeper has maintained a positive feeling watching his players grow on the court and summon their confidence at key moments. And heading into the state tournament May 11, despite having won the Region 13 championship the week before, he wasn't sure how his team would match up against unknown players from other regions.
In any case, he almost certainly would never have predicted the intensity of the tournament's conclusion, which he agreed couldn't have been scripted any better for the team. "To have all my players rise to the occasion at the same time was thrilling," he said. "The whole team—they just outperformed themselves."
Coach Sleeper was especially grateful for the way this season wrapped, as he has decided not to return to Rowland Hall next season and instead spend more time with his family. He will carry with him many fond memories of watching Rowland Hall's young athletes mature over the course of a season, and for some, throughout their high school careers.
"I've been honored to be a part of their lives throughout the years," he said. "They are an amazing group of kids."