By Jeff Nations
NEW MARKET -- You could say earning the right to play the defending state champion on its home court in the opening round of the postseason is a bit of a dubious distinction.
That's what was on the line when Stonewall Jackson hosted Shenandoah District rival Page County at New Market Community Park on Friday -- the chance to face defending Group A state champion George Mason in the Conference 35 championship.
It might be long odds against the Mustangs next Tuesday, but both teams would have gladly taken them. After splitting during the regular season to force a playoff match to decide who would move on in the one-match Conference 35 tournament, it was the visiting Panthers taking the rubber match with a 7-2 victory.
"Of course I'm disappointed because I think on any given day either team could beat the other," Stonewall Jackson coach Cindy Wilkins said. "I think it's a lot closer in the skill and talent level than the score indicated -- I don't want to take anything away from Page County, though. They've really improved their program."
One bright spot for the Generals is that tennis isn't quite over yet for the program. Stonewall Jackson No. 1 singles player Colleen Shamburg will face George Mason's No. 1 next week in the Conference 35 individual tournament after winning both regular-season matches against Page County's No. 1 -- two different players -- despite falling to yet another Panthers' No. 1 on Friday.
It's an impressive achievement for Shamburg, a senior who made the precipitous jump from No. 6 last season to No. 1 this year.
"It's definitely helped me to improve my game," Shamburg said of playing No. 1 singles. "Playing harder people is definitely a challenge. I've never played George Mason before, so I'm kind of excited and nervous at the same time because I don't know what to expect."
Page County, which lost to the Generals 6-3 on March 24 and returned the favor with a 5-4 win on April 24, had to take its customary lineup shuffle to a new level on Friday as severe flooding kept more than half of the 26-member team home. Missing from among the 12 Panthers who did make the trip to New Market were No. 3 Allison Cubbage and No. 7 Rachael May. The Panthers have already been without their opening-day No. 1 singles player, Marina Comer, who's been sidelined with recurring allergy issues.
For the most part, though, Page County has been able to consistently put together a solid lineup and that was the case again Friday.
"It's been pretty stable," Panthers coach Kirk Comer said of his lineup. "We've had a lot of sickness this year. We were going to bring the whole team here before it got rained out Thursday. Then with the flooding and some kids not able to get out of their house, I texted them that they were more than welcome to come, but if not that's OK."
The Panthers still brought enough firepower, deciding the regular-season championship by winning five of six singles matches.
Stonewall Jackson's Sage Dougherty was the Generals' lone winner at No. 3 singles with an 8-1 victory, while Shamburg put up a determined battle against Page County No. 1 Makayla Gray despite turning her ankle early in the match. Gray finally prevailed, 9-7.
The Panthers got 8-2 wins from their other four singles players -- No. 2 Kara Comer, No. 4 Ashley Knight, No. 5 Kaylyn Williams and No. 6 Sydney Cubbage.
In doubles play, Page's Gray and Comer earned a win at No. 1 and Knight and Williams won at No. 2, while Stonewall's Dougherty and Carly Litten picked up an 8-3 win at No. 3 doubles.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>