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By Tommy Keeler Jr. - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- The faces have changed over the years, but the beat still goes on for Handley's girls tennis program.
The Judges defeated James Wood, 6-3, on Thursday to clinch their seventh straight Northwestern District and 17th consecutive Region II berth. Handley has won the district title 16 of the last 17 years.
"It feels great," Handley sophomore Jessie Nolan said of winning the district title. "It's very important to try to keep the tennis tradition going. You don't want to screw it up."
The Judges (12-2, 6-0 Northwestern) lost five of their top six last year, but even with so many new players the team has still been strong. Handley started three freshmen in the top six, and were playing without their normal No. 4 singles player Anna Szmatirmai, who is out with a shoulder injury.
Handley took a commanding 3-0 lead with wins by freshmen Kathryn Bock (No. 2 singles) and Emily Smith (No. 6) and junior Madeline Hardy (No. 5).
The Colonels got on the board with a win by Headley Wilson over Nolan at No. 1 singles in the match of the day.
Nolan built an early 7-4 lead, using her powerful groundstrokes to control the rallies.
"Jessie played really well," Wilson said. "She really hit some great shots. Kudos to her. She was really banging the ball out there.
"I just tried to hang in there. She easily could have beaten me today."
Wilson said she had a talk with James Wood coach Sharon Sweet, which really helped her pick up her game.
"Coach Sweet just told me, 'You can do this,'" Wilson said. "Sometimes it just really helps to have someone tell you that.
"I'm never going to give up. I'm not going to come out here and just let somebody just roll over me. I knew I just had to keep trying."
Wilson held serve for the first time in the match to pull within 7-6, and then broke Nolan's serve on a lob winner to pull even at 7-7. The two traded breaks of serve until Wilson held serve with a backhand volley winner and took a 10-9 lead.
In the next game, Wilson hit a backhand winner on the first point. A few errors by Nolan sealed the 11-9 win for Wilson after an hour and 11 minutes.
"It was an awesome match," Wilson said. "I just kept telling myself, 'You got this. You got this.' I think that's what's made me so successful these last four years -- I'm just never willing to give up."
"I felt like I played really well today," Nolan said. "At the end, she definitely stepped it up. She was just aggressive on everything."
Emily Purnell won at No 4 singles for James Wood to cut the lead to 3-2. Handley's Sparkle Kitchin gave the Judges a 4-2 edge with a 10-8 victory over Fae Schweitzer at No. 3 singles.
Kitchin led 9-6, but Schweitzer rallied and served to stay in the match. A forehand winner moved Kitchin to match point and she finished the one-hour, 13-minute match off with a net-cord winner.
"I knew I just had to pull myself together," Kitchin said. "I just tried to take it one point at a time."
Kitchin and Madeline Hardy clinched the match for the Judges with a win at No. 2 doubles. James Wood's Holly Landes and Rachel Sours won at No. 3 doubles.
Nolan got a little revenge in doubles as she and Bock beat Wilson and Tarah Wampler at No. 1 doubles, 10-4. Wilson and Wampler were Group AA state semifinalists last year and it was their first loss of the season.
"I think we played really well," Nolan said. "I think that's the best doubles we've played all year."
Despite the loss, Wilson said it was a great match for her and Wampler to experience and shows them what they need to work on for the future. The Colonels (1-11, 1-4) won their first match of the season earlier this week, over Skyline. It was their first team win in three seasons.
"That was really exciting," Wilson said of the win. "It was just a nice feeling to finally get a win and hopefully we can get some more."
The Judges are used to getting wins, but this season they are coming a lot harder than they have in the past. Handley has won six matches this season by a 5-4 score.
Handley, which won three state titles in the last four years, has won five consecutive Region II titles. Kitchin and Hardy are the only two players on the squad who were part of Handley's last state championship team two years ago, which makes winning another district title even more impressive.
"I think because we lost so many people last year, no one thought we would do this well," Kitchin said. "It just shows it wasn't just the top six. We have a good team."