With their best singles player in Detroit, one of their best doubles players in Newport Beach attending her new school and their second-best singles player having an off day, the task of clinching Woodbridge's first Southern Section girls' tennis title was left to unheralded junior Rachel Gunther.
Gunther, known for looping lobs and marathon sets, played the set of her life and made short work of Westlake Village Westlake's Katy Smith to give Woodbridge a thrilling 9-9 (88-74 on games) victory Tuesday in the Division III final at the Claremont Club.
Smith defeated Woodbridge's Nos. 1 and 3 players in tiebreakers, but she was outsmarted by Gunther from the beginning. She fell behind, 0-2, and lost, 2-6.
"I seem to play better when I play people at my hitting level," Smith said. "When she just lobs it up, it's frustrating."
Gunther said her coach, Joan Willett, gave her a good game plan.
"We talked about what we wanted to do," Gunther said. "We wanted to take some pace off and throw her off her game."
Woodbridge (22-2) didn't miss doubles player Courtney Tenerelli, who transferred to Corona del Mar after the regular season, as much as Natalie Exon, who was in Michigan to play in the U.S. Tennis Assn. national indoors tournament. The Warriors won seven of nine doubles sets and got a sweep from No. 1 Michelle Stiefel and Natalie Mitton, but won only two of nine singles sets.
"The team missed Natalie but they were ready to take up the slack," Willett said.
Gunther said her teammates understood Exon's absence. Exon, a senior, is trying to improve her national ranking so she will get more recognition from college coaches.
"She had a really big opportunity," she said. "We did it anyway."
Entering the last three singles sets, Woodbridge trailed, 8-7. Freshman Andriana Hockicko, who was moved into Exon's No. 1 singles spot, lost her first two sets before defeating Erin Smith, Katy's sister, 6-2, in the last round. Then, with nearly everyone watching Woodbridge's No. 3 singles player, Danielle Hustedt, play a tiebreaker, Gunther quietly won her match-clinching set.
The section title was Woodbridge's second in tennis in the last six months. The boys' team beat Palos Verdes Peninsula in the Division I finals last spring. Because the section went to a new regionalized playoff format this year, Woodbridge was placed in Division III.
"The guys' team was saying if you guys don't win Division III, you guys are pathetic," Mitton said.
But the guys didn't know the girls' team would have to win without two of its best players.
"I think it's kind of good we won without Natalie," Mitton said. "And I would have felt really bad for Natalie if we didn't win."
Thanks to Gunther's heroics, there's no need for anyone on Woodbridge's team to feel bad today.