By Kyle LoJacono
The Wiregrass Ranch boys tennis team earned its second state berth in three years by defeating Wharton 4-0 at home April 11 in the Class 4A regional finals.
The Bulls (18-0) had their season ended by the Wildcats (12-2) last year in the regional semifinals. Wiregrass Ranch coach Dave Wilson expected a tough rematch.
“They’ve won three state titles in the last few years and have really good players,” Wilson said. “They have the tradition of winning, so we knew it was going to be difficult going in.”
Bulls sophomores Alejandro Feliciano (6-1, 6-2) and Foresight Okungbowa (6-2, 6-0) won at Nos. 4 and 5 singles, respectively, in less than an hour.
Agie Moreno also had a straight-set win by defeating Alek Crnogorac at No. 2, 6-2, 6-4. The freshman trailed 4-3 in the second set before winning the next three games, which included breaking Crnogorac’s serve twice, to put Wiregrass Ranch ahead 3-0.
“He was serving, and I knew I had to break him,” Moreno said. “Probably the most pressure when it was 4-4 and I was serving, and when I won it I felt no pressure in the last game.”
The drama was much higher in the No. 1 singles match between Bulls ace Courage Okungbowa (20-0) and Wharton’s top player Sam Chaffin (12-2).
Chaffin took the opening set, the first Courage has dropped since last year’s state singles title match, but the FAMU signee roared back to take the last two to win 2-6, 6-2, 6-3.
“He’s got a really big serve, and I had some trouble getting it back,” said Courage, a senior. “Then my serve was failing me. I could barely hold any serve. I think I only held my serve five times the entire match. That made me have to break his serve, which was really hard because he has a big serve. I knew to win the match I’d have to stay focused, hope he misses his first serve and try to take advantage of his second serve.”
Courage faced two break points while leading 4-3 in the third set, but fought both off with 15-plus shot rallies. He then broke Chaffin by taking four straight points to send his squad to states.
“He just knows how to win and finds ways to win,” Wilson said. “It’s a consistency thing with him, and I think because he doesn’t let his emotions get to him, that helps keep himself gathered no matter what. … Sam was fantastic. He’s a good player with a big serve. Too bad he’s a junior because we’ll probably have to play him again next year.”
The skies opened up seconds after Courage scored the winning point, which produced so much water on the courts that play would have likely had to have been suspended for a day if the match hadn’t been decided.
“At times I was hoping that that rain would come in the second set so that we could continue on another day,” Courage said. “Then I started playing better, and I wanted to get it done so that the rain wouldn’t stop it and kill the momentum. Fortunately the rain held off, and we got done just in time.”
Foresight, Courage’s brother, said his heart was racing while watching the last few points.
“The rain was right over us, and I was just thinking please Courage finish this,” Foresight said. “Don’t let the rain come; just finish and take him out.”
The win means Courage finishes his time with the squad undefeated in regular season, district and regional play. His all-time record while at Wiregrass Ranch is 60-2 with both losses coming at states.
“Three years I’ve been here and haven’t lost a match, and I didn’t want the last match before going to state to be the one I’d lose, so I had to dig deep,” Courage said. “I wasn’t sure it was going to happen in that last match, honestly. It was looking tough for awhile there.”
Bulls freshman Niels van Dam had match point on Wharton’s Thomas Hwang when the rain suspended the match at 6-2, 6-7 (6-4), 5-4.
Wiregrass Ranch defeated Plant (8-5) 4-1 in the semifinals April 9.
Foresight and Feliciano again breezed through their singles matches, both winning 6-0, 6-0.
Feliciano was the first to win, taking less than 35 minutes to defeat Max Kramer. The win was in stark contrast to his first regional match last year when he dropped a three-hour, three-set marathon against Wharton.
“I didn’t want to have the same trouble as last year,” Feliciano said. “I didn’t want to let up and just wanted to finish it as fast as possible and not do anything dumb to lose the match. I was concentrating on every game.”
Moreno also won in straight sets 6-2, 6-0.
Courage defeated Alex Josepher 6-1, 6-2. He mixed in drop shots, forehand smashes and volleys to take the opening set in about 25 minutes.
“The last time I played him it was 6-4, 7-6, so I wanted to come out strong because I know he’s a really good player,” Courage said.
Josepher answered with a break to go ahead 2-1 in the second set, but Courage responded by taking the last five games.
“I feel like I dropped my level a little bit,” Courage said. “I have this superstition about not liking to start a set serving, so I got a little tentative. Even though I won that first service game, I was still tentative the second service game when he broke me. I just had to focus a little bit.”
Thomas Harmon was able to beat van Dam 7-5, 6-0, the first match the Bulls have lost all season.
“I knew Niels would have a tough match because those guys are training partners, and that always makes for tough matches,” Wilson said. “They know each other and how to get under each other’s skin.”
Wiregrass Ranch will look for the first team state championship in the school’s seven-year history April 17 to 18 at Sanlando Park in Altamonte Springs.
“I’m so excited,” Foresight said. “I wanted to do this last year, but unfortunately (Wharton) stopped us. We really wanted this.”
The Bulls lost six of their seven first-round matches when they made states in 2011 and scored only one team point at the tournament.
“We’re definitely more prepared,” Wilson said. “The big thing two years ago was that we got there. Getting there was a big enough prize back then. Now they want to win state titles. I don’t expect to win state titles at 1 through 5 singles and both doubles, but I think they expect to win a state title at whatever they’re playing at.”
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
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