After winning the last two Howard County Cups, and taking first and second in the state tournament in girls singles last year, Atholton was the prohibitive favorite coming into this year's county tournament, the week of May 10 at the Wilde Lake Tennis Club.
But those on the inside knew that winning three in a row was going to be anything but easy for the Raiders.
"I'm friends with (Marriotts Ridge coach Scott Dingman)," Atholton coach Michael Ashmead said. "He said 'you're going to have to fight for it this year', and I said 'I know.' "
It took a fight to the finish, but Atholton won its third consecutive Howard County Cup on May 10, edging rival Marriotts Ridge, 35.5-33.
The girls doubles team of senior Margaret Tatum and junior Erica Lee clinched the title with a 7-5, 6-1 win over Mt. Hebron's Kiran Pant and Serene Mathew, who placed fourth at the state tournament last year and had beaten Tatum and Lee in both of their previous meetings this spring.
"The doubles team pretty much won it for us, they were the last on the court," Ashmead said.
Lee and Tatum each played girls doubles with different partners in last year's tournament, and have come a long way since the beginning of the spring.
"We were definitely more aggressive ... the first set was definitely a big confidence boost," Lee said. "When we won that last point everyone was silent. We shook hands and then everyone dumped water on Ashmead."
Tatum also won a girls doubles championship as a sophomore, with former partner Rachel Knobel.
"We knew that winning now was what mattered, when there was a trophy on the line," said Tatum, who had to run off to her job at a dry cleaners after a brief celebration. "I am super excited. I think we have an amazing chance of going far at states."
Coming into the tournament, the Atholton girls had some question marks, since defending state champion Irene Lu, a sophomore, and state finalist Victoria Kogan, a junior, decided to forego high school tennis this spring to focus on USTA play.
"We knew we still had a bunch of key players coming back, so I wasn't worried," Tatum said. "You take what you have and you do the best you can."
Marriotts Ridge freshman Abby Thornton, who has battled favorably with Lu and Kogan in USTA play and could be a contender for a state title later this month, cruised to the girls singles county title, 6-1, 7-5 over Centennial's Jazmine Walle.
The Mustang girls had a chance to clinch the regular season girls title with a make-up match against River Hill on May 13, too late for this edition.
The Atholton boys had already clinched the regular season county title with a win at Marriotts Ridge on May 5.
In that match, Marriotts Ridge sophomore Cade Buch defeated Atholton sophomore Matt Sklar in a battle of the top two boys singles players in the county.
But on Saturday, Sklar avenged the loss to Buch, 6-3, 6-3, in the boys singles championship, taking a 2-1 lead in their season series.
"The first time I played him I found a good rhythm pretty early. The second time he was hitting really well and I had trouble keeping pace," Sklar said. "The third time I just tried to play smarter."
Sklar said that once his match was over all the focus went to supporting Tatum and Lee in their final.
"It was awesome. We had almost the whole boys team there. We were anticipating the championship," he said.
Atholton also got a second place finish from Mark Mao and Collin McEwen in boys doubles and a third place finishes from George Mao in boys singles. Sklar played doubles with George Mao in the postseason last year, but could see him in the regional semifinals.
"There were definitely some big questions coming into the season," Ashmead said. "But the whole team made major contributions this year. It was a great season."
River Hill, which placed third with 28 points, was represented by fifth-seeded boys doubles champions Nick Zhu and Prateek Swamykumar, who defeated Mao and McEwen, 6-1, 6-3.
"As long as (Zhu and Swamykumar) keep their unforced errors to a minimum they are a force to be reckoned with all the way to states," coach Jennifer Stoker said.
Finally, Howard crowned Emma Hoesman and Max Balter as mixed doubles champions after their 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 victory over River Hill siblings Byron and Rita Hung. Hoesman, who had been battling the stomach flu earlier in the week, had already won a mixed doubles county championship with Kyle Shope back in 2012. That team also finished third at the state tournament.
"After dropping the first set Emma and Max came out inspired and dominated with aggressive returns and smart net play," coach Chip Boling said. "I believe they will be a dangerous team (at states) because they play true doubles. They serve and volley and are not afraid to be at the net against any team. The team that dominates the net wins matches in mixed doubles."
The regional tournament begins May 15 at Druid Hill and is scheduled to finish May 16 at the Wilde Lake Tennis Club.
Howard County Cup final standings: 1. Atholton, 35.5; 2. Marriotts Ridge, 33; 3. River Hill, 28; 4. Mt. Hebron, 20; 5. Centennial, 16.5; 6. Howard, 15.5; 7. Glenelg, 5.5; 8. Wilde Lake, 5; 9. Hammond, 4; 10. Long Reach and Reservoir (tie), 2.5; 12. Oakland Mills, 2.
Boys singles championship: Matt Sklar (A) def. Cade Buch (MR), 6-3, 6-3.
Boys singles consolation: George Mao (A) def. Collin Chase (MH), 6-1, 6-1.
Boys doubles championship: Nick Zhu and Prateek Swamykumar (RH) def. Mark Mao and Collin McEwen (A), 6-1, 6-3.
Boys doubles consolation: Ben Klawson and Jack Weymer (MR) def. Christian Tringali and Connor Bivens (MR), 1-6, 7-6, 6-3.
Girls singles championship: Abby Thornton (MR) def. Jazmine Walle (C), 6-1, 7-5.
Girls singles consolation: Caitlin Stewart-Moore (RH) def. Alana Ravasio (MR), 6-4, 6-3.
Girls doubles championship: Margaret Tatum and Erica Lee (A) def. Kiran Pant and Serene Mathew (MH), 7-5, 6-1.
Girls doubles consolation: Lexi Hackerman and Sara Ho (C) def. Lynette Lee and Hannah Chun (RH), 6-4, 6-3.
Mixed doubles championship: Emma Hoesman and Max Balter (Ho) def. Rita Hung and Byron Hung (RH), 3-6, 6-1,6-1.
Mixed doubles consolation: Anna Xi and Chris Choi (MR) def. Tess Weber and Rohil Bahri (MH), 6-1, 4-6, 6-3.