Lambert boys tennis coach Eric Hampton told his No. 1 doubles players to take a deep breath. Then Hampton took one of his own, because he might have needed it most of all.
Tuesday was an anxious afternoon for Hampton and the rest of the Longhorns. Facing Norcross in the Class 7A state semifinals, they had to deal with a tantalizing possibility and a problematic reality: that they could advance to the state finals for the first time in school history, but that they would have to do it on a day when they were not playing their best tennis.
“I didn’t expect to have to clinch it at all,” said Garrett McVay, Lambert’s No. 3 singles player. “I was expecting at least three of our other flights to win, too.”
So when the rest of Lambert's players spilled onto the court to mob McVay, pause for him to shake hands with opponents and then mob him again, they were feeling relief, as well as elation. No matter: The Longhorns are moving on, set to face Etowah on Saturday for the state championship.
“Good teams find ways to win when they’re playing poorly,” Hampton said. “You’ve got to have a little bit of luck, and we had that today.”
Initially, it didn't look like the Longhorns would have much of a struggle. Jack Metzger, Lambert's No. 2 singles player, cruised to a 6-0, 6-4 win over Norcross' Tyler Kane, and the Longhorns' No. 2 doubles team won 6-0, 6-2. Lambert was a match win away from advancing, and McVay had yet to take the court.
But as he warmed up with Ethan Quarterman, the Blue Devils’ No. 3, the Longhorns' hopes started to waver.
Will Harper, Lambert's No. 1 singles player, couldn't gain a steady hold against Sean McKendree, whose strong serves and groundstrokes pushed Harper into just trying to extend rallies. Harper fought hard, taking McKendree into the tiebreaker in each set, but wound up falling in both.
Just minutes after that, Lambert's No. 1 doubles pair fell. That group had gone to the third set and was two points away from winning the match and ending the dual, but Norcross surged back and won in a tiebreaker.
That left all the eyes and pressure on McVay. His teammates lined the fence and sat on the picnic tables behind the courts. Adults from both schools had to extinguish squabbles over line calls.
And McVay had to come back. He dropped the first set and fell behind in the second, his unforced errors mounting and frustration growing as he fell for Quarterman’s strategy of just keeping the point going long enough for McVay to slip up.
“He’s used to playing guys who have much more pace on the ball,” Hampton said of McVay. “That was frustrating to him.”
McVay told himself to calm down and match Quarterman’s shots, counting on his harder serves and forehands eventually winning out. That strategy started to come through in the second set, when McVay won three straight games to turn a 4-3 deficit into a 6-4 set win.
The junior kept rolling through the third set, winning 6-2 to clinch the match and send Lambert forward. In McVay’s mind, he didn’t have much of a choice but to pull through.
“I just knew that we need to win the (state) championship this year, because we’re losing Will and Jack next year,” McVay said. “I knew we were relying on me, and I knew I had to get the win today.”