Shady Side Academy and Mt. Lebanon played one of the longest matches of the high school team tennis season -- with a PIAA title on the line.
This past Saturday at the Hershey Racquet Club, the Indians beat the Blue Devils for the second time in nine days. This time, three of the five matches went three sets as Shady Side ultimately eked out a 3-2 victory to win its second PIAA Class AAA championship in the past four years.
"That," said longtime Shady Side coach Jeff Miller, "was intense."
The Indians' Kelly Mengel and Alexa Miller (from Fox Chapel and the North Allegheny School District, respectively) had easy victories against their Mt. Lebanon counterparts at second and third singles, respectively -- just as they did in the WPIAL title match Oct. 22.
Also, just as had happened in that match, the Blue Devils' first doubles team of Claire Healy and Jessica Warshaw came back from losing the first set, 6-4, to defeat Lisha Gu and Rachel Diehl of Shady Side Academy.
But where the PIAA championship match differed from the WPIAL final was that Shady Side Academy's second doubles team became the "swing" match. Lindsay Cozen and Rachel Mears had lost to Eva Varotsis and Julia Rose after taking the first set, 6-4, a week earlier.
In the rematch, it was the Mt. Lebanon team that won the first set, 6-4, but the Shady Side Academy duo that won the match.
"They're the ones who really came through," said Tom Mercer, who is co-head coach along with Jeff Miller at Shady Side. "They lost in the WPIAL final, and I think they felt like they could have won that match and could have played better in the WPIAL finals. They had something to prove."
Cozen, from Squirrel Hill, and Mears, from Fox Chapel, had three unsuccessful match points while holding a 5-4 lead in the third set before losing that game but bounced back for a 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 7-5, victory.
"We definitely started thinking about the fact we needed to win for the team to win after we saw the [doubles] team next to us lose," said Mears, a senior. "I think we knew we could beat them. Our previous match was so close, so I think we were just focusing on winning one point at a time and not trying to think of the big scheme of things and winning the entire states match for the team."
It was the final match in team play representing Shady Side Academy for Mears, Gu and first singles player Sarah Perelman, although Perelman returns to Hershey this weekend for the PIAA tennis individual championships. She is the WPIAL runner-up.
Mears was in her second season on the team and first as a full-time starter. Gu joined the team as a sophomore, when the Indians won one of their three WPIAL championships in the past four seasons.
Perelman, a Squirrel Hill resident, has been a starter for each of her four high school years, a period of time in which Shady Side Academy has won 90 of its 92 matches.
"That's what you want to have, your best player as the leader," Mercer said. "She wanted to go out by winning states again, which she did. And she was a big part of that. She had some big wins for us. In WPIALs, she had the big win that ensured we won that."
Jeff Miller has been coach at Shady Side Academy dating back to the mid-1980s, and these past four years have been the best period for the team during that time. The only constant has been Perelman.
"She's one of those players who gets the most out of her ability," Miller said. "She has a really good all-around game, and she has a forehand she can turn into a weapon."
Perelman recently made a verbal commitment to attend Cornell University and is expected to step in as a freshman next year as one of the top players on the tennis team at the Ivy League school.
"Cornell is perfect for me," Perelman said. "I went up for a visit and I felt comfortable immediately. I loved the people there, and of course, the academics are amazing."
Perelman still has the PIAA singles tournament, but it will be hard to top the feeling of being part of a team champion.
"It still hasn't even hit me yet," Perelman said Monday.
"It really came down to second doubles, and it was amazing to see how they had worked so hard the entire season to improve and to see everything pay off.
"It's quite a feeling to be a part of what was just a great team. We were all so close and had so much fun. It's really kind of sad to see it's all over. It was so great to be part of a team so close that works so hard and achieved its goal for the season."