South Aiken rallies for Lower State title
SOUTH AIKEN 4, LEXINGTON 2
By NOAH FEIT
For the third year in a row, the South Aiken High School boys’ tennis team advanced to the Lower State championship. After near misses the past two seasons, the Thoroughbreds finally broke through with a rousing 4-2 victory over Region 5-AAAA rival Lexington to advance to Saturday’s state championship match.
South Aiken (18-1) avenged its only loss of the 2013 campaign and won the season series against the Wildcats, 2-1. But for much of the match played at the Odell Weeks Tennis Center, it didn’t look like the T-Breds would get over the hump and make the state championship. That’s because at one point in the showdown, South Aiken players trailed in four of the six matches.
“It didn’t look too good early. We were down and I thought this could be a long day,” South Aiken head coach Rakesh Jasani said. “But this team has shown resilience all year. It’s a special bunch. They’re young, but they’ve been around and been together for a while. They support each other and it was a team effort.”
It really took every last player to pull off the victory. Two of the matches were decided in third-set tiebreakers and another was determined by a tiebreaker at the end of the second set. In no coincidence, South Aiken won all of those narrow victories. That hasn’t been the case in the past for the T-Breds, who often struggled in similar situations. Jasani said a greater focus on being better later in matches has paid off this season.
“It’s who wants it more at that point,” Jasani said. “We’ve become more comfortable in those situations. It doesn’t faze them.”
South Aiken needed the strong finish, because for the third time this season, the Wildcats (18-3) won the top two singles matches. Neither No. 1 singles player Jordan Dingle nor No. 2 Stefan Zotovic could defeat their opponents – Logan Adkins and Thomas Bryan respectively. Jasani said prior to the match he wasn’t counting on wins in these spots, since Lexington had the upper hand in both regular-season showdowns. To their credit, both Dingle and Zotovic tried to rally, making the second sets very close before both fell 7-5.
That put the onus on the rest of the T-Breds to deliver. No. 5 singles player Jonny Bowman continued his strong play, winning the most lopsided match of the day 6-0, 6-2. But two other matches Jasani figured would be South Aiken wins – Preston Tiffany in No. 3 singles as well as the No. 2 doubles team of Zach Thatcher and Marko Zotovic – struggled at the start. Both lost the opening sets, creating doubt about the T-Breds’ chances. But not in the mind of Tiffany.
“He was hitting good shots and I missed a few bog points,” he said of his first-set loss. “But I was playing well and knew in the second set I could win if I played a little better. When I won that, I had momentum.”
The momentum swing started with the No. 2 doubles match. Thatcher and Marko Zotovic rallied for a 2-6, 6-2, 10-7 win. When Petar Zotovic, playing in the critical No. 4 singles match overcame a 5-1 deficit in the second-set tiebreaker to win, momentum was clearly on the T-Breds’ side.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but Tiffany had the outcome of the match riding on his racquet. After splitting the first two sets 3-6, 6-3, Tiffany dominated the tiebreaker, prevailing 10-4 and setting off a celebration by his teammates who stormed his court.
“That was fun,” he said. “I didn’t know Petar had won. … I still can’t believe it.”
Jasani soon joined his players, celebrating the thrilling win that came after a dominant run through the first three rounds of the playoffs. South Aiken swept Blythewood and Summerville 6-0 before dominating Aiken 5-1. Winning a critical match with its season on the line was exhilarating, but posting back-to-back wins over top rivals Aiken and Lexington to advance to the state championship was icing on the cake.
“It could be sweeter,” Jasani said. “These have been our arch nemesis’ the last two years, so it means a lot. I’m proud of them, but there’s still unfinished business.”
That’s a showdown with Dorman on Saturday at the Cayce Fitness & Tennis Center. Dorman won the state title in 2011 and knocked off Spring Valley in the Upper State championship.
“It’s not going to get easier,” Jasani said. “I expect a battle, but we’re going to do our best to bring home a title to South Aiken. It’s been a long time.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.
SOUTH AIKEN 4, LEXINGTON 2
• No. 1 Logan Adkins (LEX) d. Jordan Dingle (SA) 6-2, 7-5
• No. 2 Thomas Bryan (LEX) d. Stefan Zotovich (SA) 6-2, 7-5
• No. 3 Preston Tiffany (SA) d. Grayson Hill (LEX) 3-6, 6-3, 10-4
• No. 4 Petar Zotovic (SA) d. Adam Hajji (LEX) 6-1, 7-6 (8-6)
• No. 5 Jonny Bowman (SA) d. Byron Byers (LEX) 6-0, 6-2
• No. 2 Zach Thatcher and Marko Zotovic (SA) d. Nikil Sairam and Will Horton (LEX) 2-6, 6-2, 10-7