Abby Thornton walked off the court at Wilde Lake Tennis Club on May 27 a champion at last.
The senior had accomplished everything she could in her varsity tennis career at Marriotts Ridge — four individual and team county titles, three individual regional championships, two Player of the Year nods and a County Cup in 2016 — but a state crown proved elusive until that Saturday afternoon in Columbia.
That achievement would've been at the top of her list of best moments in her stellar career had she done it alone, but winning it all with her best friend and doubles partner Veronica Cuellar at her side made it a moment she will never forget.
"It took me a couple days to process. I still can't believe we won states," Thornton said nearly a month after she and Cuellar knocked off Walt Whitman's Carina Greenberg and Sarinah Wahl, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), in the final.
"I'd wake up and think we were still at states and think we had another match to play," said Cuellar, a sophomore. "I take a lot of pride in knowing I did this and I did this with my best friend. It means so much not just to her, but to me. States was always motivation for both of us throughout this season and last season as well. Getting there and doing it was amazing."
The duo dominated in their journey to the state title. They lost just five games in their first nine postseason matches before the final, which proved to be their only true challenge. They overcame a late comeback attempt from Greenberg and Wahl to win the first set and soon after they trailed, 5-2, in the second.
But the chemistry on the court and confidence in each other was enough to keep their perfect record in tact. Thornton and Cuellar won the next four games, and in the tiebreak they rallied again to win seven of the last eight points and overcome a 4-0 deficit to become the program's first-ever state champions in any tennis event.
They are the first girls' doubles team to win a state title since River Hill's Kristin Manglitz and Devon Humphries won in 2000 and the first county players to win any title since River Hill's Prateek Swamykumar and Nicholas Zhu won the boys doubles championship in 2014.
That's why Thornton and Cuellar are this year's Howard County Times/Columbia Flier girls tennis Co-Players of the Year.
"She helped me so much," Thornton said of Cuellar. "We're actually best friends and we played doubles together over the summer so we knew we worked well together. She's a very solid player at net and the chemistry we have on the court helped a lot."
"I had been begging coach to let us play together. It's her last year and I won't be able to play with her again," said Cuellar. "I just didn't want to mess up her last counties, regionals and hopefully states, but once we got playing, I forgot about any pressure. ... We're best friends, so it helps that we know each other on the court as well as we do off the court."
That deep friendship developed far before their championship run. They first met when Cuellar, who moved from Puerto Rico just before high school, was doing a clinic at Green Spring Racquet Club in Lutherville — the same club Thornton had been to since she was 8 years old — and their coach told Thornton about Cuellar. "Friendly stalking," Cuellar called it.
After meeting again briefly during preseason workouts and at a team meeting, Cuellar approached Thornton during tryouts to ask if she thought she would make the team.
"I said, 'Don't worry, you're doing great. You're going to make it.' And then I walked up to our assistant coach and I go, 'I just told this girl she's going to make the team, so you better not cut her,'" Thornton recalled. "After she found out I did that, we just became friends immediately from the start. That's pretty much how we met."
The pair bugged Marriotts Ridge coach Scott Dingman about playing doubles from then on. They had played together over the summer and worked well as a team, but it wasn't until Thornton met with Dingman before the postseason that a decision was made.
"I just kind of had a feeling that even last year Abby was looking for a change," Dingman said. "I know she was really happy to finish third at states [her junior year] but it just felt like she was hoping for something more. In my mind, I was hoping she would want something different and to play doubles."
Thornton will head to Loyola University to play Division-I tennis after going 111-6 over four years. She hopes Cuellar will take on her role as leader of the team, which Dingman said is a "natural progression."
Replacing "without a doubt" the best player to ever suit up for the Mustangs isn't an easy task, but Cuellar seems fit for the challenge.
"They have similar personalities and Veronica is a really hard worker and someone who everybody wants to be around, someone who is always trying to do what's best for the team," Dingman said. "... I think there's definitely a passing of the torch. I feel like the kids respected [Abby] so much that they want to carry that on for her even though she won't be here."
Said Thornton: "She's won states, so I know she's going to keep doing great. I'm going to pass it on to her because I was captain this year and we were all so close. So now I'm passing it on to her to hopefully be captain and keep the team really close. We definitely have a family aspect to the team and that's what helped us win the county title all four years."
Artasova jumped on the scene last year and finished second at the county and regional tournaments in mixed doubles with Prateek Swamykumar but moved to singles this spring. The sophomore reached the county final, where she lost the first set to Long Reach's Snigdha Puram but rallied to win 12 of the next 14 games to win the title. Artasova knocked off Puram in straight sets a week later at the regional tournament to help the Hawks win the team title before going 1-1 at the state tournament.
Alyssa Boryachinskiy, Howard, junior.
Boryachinskiy, an all-county selection for a third time, teamed up with Kailey Caroland for the second straight postseason and reached the finals of the county tournament. The pair failed to defend their county title in girls doubles, falling to Co-Players of the Year Abby Thornton and Veronica Cuellar of Marriotts Ridge, and went on to place third at the regional tournament.
Caroland and Alyssa Boryachinskiy teamed up for the second straight postseason and reached the finals of the county tournament. They failed to defend their county tournament title, falling to Co-Players of the Year Abby Thornton and Veronica Cuellar of Marriotts Ridge, and went on to place third at the regional tournament.
Maanasa Gurram, River Hill, sophomore.
Gurram paired with Ashley Wang to form a formidable doubles team this postseason, as the pair lost a tough semifinal match to Alyssa Boryachinskiy and Kailey Caroland of Howard in the county tournament semifinals and eventually placed fourth. However, the duo avenged that defeat at the regional tournament and advanced to the final, where they fell to to Co-Players of the Year Abby Thornton and Veronica Cuellar of Marriotts Ridge in straight sets. They beat Hereford's Jessica Rudy and Emma Wallner, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3, in the first round at the state tournament but lost in the quarterfinals.
Puram has been one of the top singles players in the county over the last few years. This spring, the junior faced River Hill's Anna Artasova in the finals of the county and regional tournaments but lost, 4-6, 6-2, 6-0, and then 6-2, 7-6 (7-5), respectively. She lost her only match at the state tournament.
Olivia Tsai, Centennial, freshman.
Tsai played a big role as a freshman in helping the Eagles win this year's County Cup. She teamed up with Andy Tseng in mixed doubles and the duo knocked off No. 1 seed Tess Weber and Michael Kimack of Mt. Hebron, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, in the final of the county tournament. The Vikings got revenge in the final of the regional tournament and Tsai and Tseng lost in three sets in their first match at the state tournament.
Ashley Wang, River Hill, junior.
Wang teamed up with Maanasa Guram to form a strong girls doubles team this spring. They made a run to the county tournament semifinals before placing fourth, and at the regional tournament they avenged a county tournament defeat to Alyssa Boryachinskiy and Kailey Caroland of Howard to reach the finals. They went on to win a match at the state tournament before falling to Emily Brecker and Noelle Htwar of Liberty in the quarterfinals.
Tess Weber, Mt. Hebron, senior.
A three-time all-county selection, Weber continued her success in mixed doubles this spring as a senior. She and Rohil Bahri won a county and regional title last spring and this year she teamed up with Michael Kimack to finish second at the county tournament before avenging their defeat to Centennial's Olivia Tsai and Andy Tseng in the regional tournament final. The duo won three matches at the state tournament to advance to the championship but lost in straight sets in the final.