Looking back years from now, 2013 might be remembered as the year that Howard County rose to power on the Maryland tennis scene, ending a decade-long reign of dominance by Montgomery County.
In the state tournament finals at the Cole Field House tennis courts at the University of Maryland, May 25, Howard County swept the singles finals. Reservoir senior Biyik Akinshemoyin defeated Wootton’s Mateo Cevallos in straight sets, 6-2, 6-1, and Atholton freshman Irene Lu defeated sophomore teammate Victoria Kogan for the girls singles championship, 6-1, 6-4.
Tournament officials believed that it was the first time in history that a player defeated a teammate in a championship final.
Akinshemoyin, who lost to Cevallos after retiring because of cramping in last year’s championship match, is Howard County’s first boys singles state champion since Wilde Lake’s David Nguyen won in 2006 to become the county’s first boys singles state champ.
“I’ve won some USTA tournaments before … but there’s a different type of feel to high school tennis,” said Akinshemoyin, who has committed to play for UMBC next year. “It’s a good feeling … now I go down in the record books.”
Akinshemoyin has developed a devoted fan base among fellow competitors, teammates and Reservoir students over the years.
“Tennis is such an individual sport and he wanted to play high school tennis because he wanted to have a team experience and that was really evident,” coach Karen Wolfe said. “The thing that I’m going to remember is how much he wanted it for the school.”
In last year’s state final, Akinshemoyin and Cevallos split sets before a leg cramp forced Akinshemoyin to hobble off the court in the third set.
“I made sure I prepared before I came to the finals. I made sure I started hydrating like two or three weeks before regionals,” said Akinshemoyin who used a combination of Pedialyte and coconut water to stay strong. “When Mateo and I play it’s always pretty close.”
Using his combination of power and court coverage, Akinshemoyin never allowed Cevallos to get a foothold.
Cevallos battled hard to avoid match point though, before Akinshemoyin finally sealed it with a booming ace.
“I didn’t want to give him any hope, that’s just the way my game is developing now,” he said. “When I was up 5-1 a lot was going through my head, like how am I going to celebrate. You’re up 5-1 serving for the championship, you’re thinking about what’s going to happen, and unfortunately that’s what I was thinking ... I just had to make sure I stayed focused."
The final ace, I was just telling myself if I can get this big serve in, it’s not going to come back.”
Lu is Howard County’s first girls singles champion since Glenelg’s Marianne Baker won back-to-back state titles in 2001 and 2002.
“It makes me feel like now I’m part of the team and I’m glad I could help out,” Lu said. “I just wanted (Victoria) to do her best and I wanted to do my best, so I guess that’s why we did end up playing each other for the championship.”
Lu defeated Kogan for the Howard County title, while Kogan — the defending county champion — defeated Lu for the regional title last weekend.
“Atholton girls tennis definitely got better over the past two years, which is great,” Kogan said. “We played each other so many times that it’s just normal now, I guess.”
Atholton coach Michael Ashmead said that it was difficult watching two of his players pitted against each other under such intense conditions, but the situation was a testament to the strength of the Atholton program.
“They both played great, they’re both incredible hitters, so it should be a good start for next year,” Ashmead said of his young stars. “It definitely could have gone either way.”
Centennial’s Katie Dougherty (1997) is the only other Howard County player to win a singles state championship.
Centennial’s boys doubles team of Chase Weinberg and Kevin Hsieh lost a hard-fought battle with Wootton’s Gabriel Fan and Titas Bera in the semifinals, but battled back to take third.
The Eagles’ team of Megan Mishra and Simone Jensen defeated Mt. Hebron’s Kiran Pant and Serene Mathew in three sets to take third in girls doubles.
Finally, the Atholton county and regional championship mixed doubles team of Scott Lee and Jenna Sweet advanced to the state semifinals but had to retire from the tournament after Sweet injured her ankle.