Tie-breaker heartbreak

CLAREMONT — In his head, Coach A.G. Longoria counted the games his Sage Hill School girls' tennis team won and how many St. Margaret's won. He double-checked with the opposing coach, Rick Trager, just to make sure.

The two came up with the same numbers and the Lightning led by two games.

They stood next to each other while the final set of the CIF Southern Section Division III title match determined the fate of their teams Monday. The two coaches had been in this situation before with their teams at The Claremont Club.

Each relived last year's finale.

All Trager needed was for his No. 3 singles player, Arin Melkonian, to win her set by three games. The junior delivered more than that, sweeping the set to lift the Tartans to their fourth straight section crown.

For the second straight year, the section championship between St. Margaret's and Sage Hill went to games won after the Academy League rivals split their 18 sets. The second-seeded Tartans posted a 69-65 games edge against fourth-seeded Sage Hill and hung on for their 96th straight victory.

No team has defeated St. Margaret's in four years. Sage Hill has come close twice the past two years, only to fall short in the biggest match of the year each time.

"You can't get any closer," said Longoria, whose team lost to the Tartans, 69-60, on games last year.

"It stings [losing to the Tartans again], but once you look at it, you look at the talent they have and you look at the talent that we have; they have better talent than we do. I'm extremely proud of the fact that even though they have the talent, we push them to the limit."

Longoria's strategy for dethroning the Tartans (20-0) gave Sage Hill its best shot at winning.

He strengthened his three doubles teams, moving his No. 2 (Ava Soleimany) and No. 3 (Kimberly Brown) singles players to doubles action. The goal was for the Lightning (21-6) to sweep the nine doubles sets and then rely on top singles player Liana Korber to claim one set.

Things didn't go as planned.

St. Margaret's top doubles team of Madison Gottlieb and Tessa Hurr defeated Sage Hill's No. 1 team of Rian Billingsley and Brown, 7-5.

The Tartans jumped ahead, 4-2, in the first round. Longoria said he felt his team could come back, despite the fact that St. Margaret's ruined any chance of Sage Hill sweeping doubles.

The Lightning bounced back, tying the match at 6-6.

Soleimany and Lauren Hsu gave the Lightning a gritty 7-6 (4) doubles win against Katie Fragapane and Deena Fatehi. The duo, playing No. 2 doubles, continued to perform and became the first team to knock off Gottlieb and Hurr, winning, 6-3.

The victory cut the St. Margaret's lead to 6-5. The Lightning tied it when Korber scored a 6-1 singles decision against Melkonian.

When the match was even at 6-6, Trager walked toward the scorer's table and said, "Going down to the wire again."

Trager looked worried, especially after Soleimany and Hsu broke the tie with a 6-0 win. Then St. Margaret's fell behind by two sets when Billingsley and Brown picked up a 6-1 victory for the Lightning.

Zoe Oedekerk, a No. 2 singles player, pulled St. Margaret's even at 8-8 with a 6-1 decision against Korber. The lead went back to Sage Hill.

The Lightning closed out doubles play with a 6-1 victory, their eighth win in doubles. Katie Bick and Casey Astorino, the No. 3 doubles team, swept their three sets.

At this point, Sage Hill led in sets (9-8) and games (65-63). One set remained, Melkonian and Molly Wang, Sage Hill's No. 2 singles player.

Players and fans from both Sage Hill and St. Margaret's converged near the court where Melkonian and Wang played. To describe the slow pace of the set, Trager said it best.

"I thought I had to go shave or something like that," Trager said. "It kept going on forever."

Eventually, the set came to an end. It lasted only six games, but it felt like six hours.

When it was over, the Tartans stormed the court to celebrate.

"It's the best feeling in the world," Melkonian said of being the difference. "I can't believe I was the last one playing."

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