Great Valley wins first district tennis match in school history

EAST WHITELAND – Great Valley sophomores Michele Oh and Dena Swope found themselves in a difficult position during Monday’s District 1 Class AAA girls tennis first-round clash with Central Bucks South.

Playing in their first career postseason match, the Patriots’ top doubles pairing was locked in a do-or-die third set with history — and the tension of a win-or-go-home scenario — resting firmly on their shoulders and rackets.

No pressure, right?

Apparently not. Oh and Swope weathered the high-stakes challenge, pulling away to capture the match’s decisive set, 6-2, and give host Great Valley the first district playoff win in school history.

The No. 8 Patriots advanced to the quarterfinals, where they will meet top-seeded West Chester Henderson, a 5-0 winner over Academy Park, at 3:30 Tuesday afternoon with a berth for the PIAA Championships on the line.

“We didn’t know we were the deciding match,’ Swope said. “We had an idea, but we weren’t totally sure. It’s really exciting to help us win our first district match. It was great to have the support of our teammates. That really pushes us to work harder and play better.’

If the Patriots’ young tandem was nervous as their monumental match boiled down to a single, stressful set, it hardly showed. Oh and Swope fell behind, 1-0, in the third, before taking command, sandwiching a pair of holds around a break of serve to take a 3-1 lead. The ninth-seeded Titans’ duo of Lisa Maeyer and Kelly Montgomery held serve for 3-2, but Great Valley’s super sophomores won the next three games to clinch the watershed victory, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2.

Oh and Swope combined their strengths to great effect in the third set, the latter finishing points with perfectly placed volleys and the former setting her up with powerful serves. Oh pounded several aces in the decisive set, putting every bit as much velocity into her second serve as her first. Despite the wind whipping around the Great Valley courts, Oh double-faulted only once.

“Her second serve is basically her first serve,’ Swope said of her partner. “It’s amazing. It makes me very confident at the net.’

Tennis players, even at the professional level, typically opt for a slower, higher percentage stroke when faced with a second serve. Not so for Oh, who consistently moved her powerful serve around the box, painting lines and keeping the Titans guessing most of the afternoon.

“I’m not surprised at all,’ Swope said. “Her serve is always on.’

Though Oh and Swope were mostly in control throughout the tense final set, Great Valley coach Gerry McGrath was fighting his own battle with nerves, pacing around the fence as his charges made history.

“I was shaking,’ McGrath said. “It’s so much easier to play than watch. You’re sitting on the side and you can’t do anything. You’re just hoping they find it within themselves to get it done. I told (Oh and Swope) I was so proud of their effort. It was a great character win for this team, and that will pay dividends for a while.’

McGrath hopes more big moments lie in the Patriots’ future. After all, Great Valley’s three wins came on the rackets of three sophomores and two freshmen who had exactly one district playoff match under their belts before Monday; Oh played number three singles in the Patriots’ 5-0 loss against Henderson in last year’s first round. Otherwise, it was uncharted territory for most of a lineup that also includes a junior (Torey Powers) and a single senior (Brinley Bartlett).

One would never have guessed at Great Valley’s experience — or lack thereof – from watching this match. Freshman Adira Nair turned in a thoroughly impressive postseason debut, logging a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Ariella Banin at third singles. Two other underclassmen — sophomore Vernika Saini and freshman Sadie Buzan — teamed for a 6-2, 6-3 result at second doubles moments after Bartlett fell in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4, to the Titans’ Abby Gamarnik at first singles.

That set the stage for a nervous finish in which the Patriots held a 2-1 lead as the remaining two matches went to third sets. C.B. South captured the first, with Emily Rabinovich topping Powers, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, to leave it up to Oh and Swope. Like their similarly green teammates, they delivered.

“They’re mentally strong,’ McGrath said of his underclassmen. “That’s going to carry over not just to the courts, but also to the classroom and when they go out into the workforce. That’s a very transferable skill.’

A year ago, Great Valley was thrilled just to make the district tournament. Now, with another milestone checked off their list, the Patriots come into Tuesday’s rematch at Henderson with nothing to lose. If nothing else, the experience of taking on the Warriors, PIAA semifinalists a year ago, can only serve as another stepping stone on Great Valley’s upward trajectory.

“We feel like this is more movement in the right direction,’ McGrath said. “We want to be considered an elite team in the district, and we’re playing an elite team; that’s the ultimate measuring stick.

“We have nothing to lose. If the girls play to their potential, who knows?”


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