Pine-Richland's Marlys Bridgham won the Section 2-AAA singles title as a sophomore last year, which was a bit of a shock even to her coach.
"Frankly, I was pretty surprised," said Pine-Richland girls tennis coach Janet Chappell.
Bridgham was the Rams' No. 2 player behind Taylor Perz last season. But in the section final, Bridgham took down Perz in straight sets, 6-4, 6-1. Perz, who was a senior, went on to finish second in the WPIAL, while Bridgham lost in the second round.
Entering this season's Section 2-AAA tournament, the expectations for Bridgham were different. As the defending champion and No. 1 seed, she was the favorite to become Pine-Richland's first ever back-to-back section champion.
But early in the second set of her final against North Allegheny's Kylie Isaacs, it looked as if an upset would occur in the final for the second season in a row.
Isaacs, who lost in three sets to Bridgham in the semifinals of the 2011 section tournament and in straight sets earlier this season, won the first set 6-4 and was leading 3-0 in the second set. Bridgham even admitted that if this were 2011, she would have lost.
"My mental game has really improved from last year," Bridgham said. "I have the mental toughness to convince myself to stay in the match. I couldn't have done that last year."
Bridgham battled back to take the second set in a tiebreaker, 7-6 (6-1), and then didn't lose a point in the third set to bring home the title. In addition to staying mentally strong, Bridgham said she used the weather to her advantage.
"Right around the time I was down 3-0, the wind started to pick up," Bridgham said. "So for the rest of the match, I used the wind to my advantage with my shots."
Now Bridgham enters the WPIAL Class AAA singles tournament, which starts today, as one of the favorites. The pressure of the tournament shouldn't have much of an effect on Bridgham, who is an experienced United States Tennis Association tournament player. In fact, as of Sept. 12, Bridgham was at the top of the USTA 16-and-under Middle States rankings, which includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and parts of West Virginia.
"I always think the best form of training is tournament play," Bridgham said. "I'm going to look at WPIALs as just another USTA tournament. I'm going to pay attention to my opponent's strengths and weaknesses, work really hard and play well. There are going to be a lot of really good players there. Mental toughness will be key."
Although Chappell was surprised by her accomplishment at sectionals last year, she wouldn't be surprised if Bridgham were to become the first girls tennis WPIAL singles champion in Rams' history.
"I think she stacks up well this week," Chappell said. "She's gone to a lot of national tournaments. She picked up her game a lot since last year. We're hopeful she can win the WPIAL title."
The WPIAL Class AAA singles tournament begins today at Norwin High School. First-round matches commence at 1 p.m. The championship and third-place consolation matches in both Class AAA and AA are scheduled for Friday at North Allegheny.