By Jeff Odom
Land O’ Lakes girls tennis player Deneen Wang had no idea the team’s season rested on her shoulders at the Class 3A-District 6 tournament April 3 at River Ridge.
The Gators’ No. 3 singles player advanced to the district final against Central’s Brittany Blackburn. A win would give Land O’ Lakes the runner-up spot, but a loss would force the team to come back the next day for a tiebreaker for the second straight season.
Fortunately for the Gators, history didn’t repeat itself.
Wang, a freshman, took down her senior counterpart 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 to lift her squad to a two-point win over the Bears, sealing a third straight playoff berth behind champion Springstead. The win sent coach Karen Turman and her teammates into a frenzy.
“Not without drama,” said Turman, her eyes red with tears. “The last two days were unbelievable between yesterday when the heat was getting us, and the No. 2 singles had to retire during her match, to being down to the very last match (today), and I knew, of course, the last match would go three sets.”
Turman said she didn’t tell Wang until after the match how crucial the win was to keep her mind fresh. However, Wang, who lost to Blackburn in the regular season, said she had a feeling it was important.
“My coach would never tell me that this is it,” Wang said. “(In the last meeting, Blackburn) told me, ‘You know what? (You’re) going to win. You’ll be better next time.’ That motivated me to beat her.”
Land O’ Lakes’ No. 1 doubles duo of Kavya Avancha and Cori Arndt made their mark as well by becoming the first duo in program history to qualify for states after defeating Zephyrhills’ Hannah Ungerer and Sydney Owens 6-4, 6-4 in the finals.
“It’s really, really exciting to me, because I’ve been playing doubles since I was a freshman,” said Arndt, a junior. “Kavya’s such a great partner, and I feel like we worked well together. … Today, we just wanted to come in and win, because we had lost to Zephyrhills earlier in the season, but we just really wanted to play our best.”
Turman said she was proud of the two because of their drive on and off the court.
“It’s very, very good, and I’m so proud of that team because they worked hard, and every match this year they built a little more confidence,” Turman said. “We talked about it this morning. They had to walk on that court, do their best and they did. … This is big for Land O’ Lakes, because the boys have gone before, and now it’s our turn.”
Avancha came up just short of going to states as an individual, losing the singles title to Leesburg’s No. 1 Janelle Taylor 6-1, 7-6 (7-1).
On the boys’ side, the Gators did not advance out of districts for the first time in five seasons, finishing third behind champion Springstead and runner-up Mitchell.
Land O’ Lakes finished with 11 points, one less than the Mustangs. The Gators had four players to singles finals, but only No. 5 Eric Lee earned a victory 6-3, 6-3 over Sunlake’s Chris Wilkinson.
The Gators girls travel to Ocala Forest for the regional semifinals on April 9.
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