SUMTER -- Porter-Gaud's girls finally have their state championship trophy.
Three-time defending state champion Ashley Hall wasn't around to torment the Cyclones this time, and Hilton Head Prep wasn't up to the task of defeating the Cyclones three straight times this season.
The Cyclones (12-3) won the SCISAA Class 3-A tennis title Saturday at the Palmetto Tennis Center with a 5-4 win over Region 3 champion Hilton Head Prep (11-3) as senior Mi'Kola Cooper went out with flying colors in a brilliant comeback in singles and a dominant doubles win with junior partner Annie Hay.
Porter-Gaud also got individual victories from Hay, eighth-grader Lexi Steichen and seventh-grader Ann Martin Skelly in the battle of region rivals.
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Coach Brian Burke had said all week that no one had beaten his team on hardcourts when the Cyclones had a full lineup. Hilton Head Prep had beaten the Cyclones 5-1 a few weeks ago on clay when Cooper, Hay and Steichen all lost to the young Dolphins, who start four eighth-graders in singles.
"This means everything to me ... I'm happy I finally got a state championship," Cooper said.
But this one didn't come easily, and it was Cooper's never-say-die attitude that allowed the Cyclones to take a 4-2 lead into doubles, where she teamed with Hay for an impressive 6-0, 6-3 win over Prep freshman Allie Burak and hard-hitting eighth-grader Cameron Kriscunas to clinch the championship.
When Burak and Kriscunas made things interesting by closing to within 4-3 in the second set -- while the Dolphins were ahead in the other two doubles matches -- Cooper took things personal. She broke out of deuce with a deep, athletic overhead for a break point and then went ahead 5-3 with a blistering backhand down the line. One game later, the Porter-Gaud girls were celebrating.
Despite jumping off to a 3-0 lead against Burak in No. 1 singles, Cooper dropped the first set in a tiebreaker and had to win the last five points in a third-set tiebreaker to end the nearly three-hour match, 6-7 (7-5), 6-2, 10-5.
"Once I won the second set, I felt like I had a little edge," Cooper said.
Cooper had trouble finding her rhythm as the consistent Burak appeared to decide early that she would let the big-hitting Cooper beat herself. The strategy worked in the first set, especially in the tiebreaker, as Cooper fell behind 5-1 on the "sun side" that she appeared to struggle on in the first set against Burak's lobs and moon balls.
After Cooper ran through the second set, she got off to a 5-3 lead in the third-set tiebreaker before making two loose errors, but then hit two strong backhand winners. Burak followed with three straight errors to give Cooper the win.
Hay already had scored a victory over Kriscunas at No. 2 singles when the Prep eighth-grader chose to retire in the second set with a foot injury. Steichen had posted a 7-5, 6-1 victory over Hilton Head Prep's lone senior, Maggi Colket, at No. 5 singles, while left-handed 12-year-old Skelly had closed out her first season without dropping a set in a 6-0, 6-1 win over the Dolphins' Katie Rankin at No. 6 singles.
Prep's Shannon O'Brien defeated Grace Robards in a third-set tiebreaker at No. 3 singles, and Ellie Czura stormed past Carissa Steichen, 6-0, 6-2, at No. 4 for the Dolphins' only singles wins.
Up 4-2, the Cyclones only needed one win in doubles. They were trailing in the other two doubles matches when Cooper and Hay clinched the title.
"The main key was we were prepared this time. We changed our routine this year," Burke said in reference to the previous two state championship defeats to Ashley Hall. "We got out here early today and yesterday (before a win over Ashley Hall in the semifinals). We got here at 8 a.m. today (match time was 10 a.m.) and practiced, and we were loose for the match.
"We had prepared specifically in practices this season for Ashley Hall and Hilton Head Prep."
PORTER-GAUD 5, HILTON HEAD PREP 4
Singles: No. 1 Mi'Kola Cooper (PG) def. Allie Burak, 6-7, 6-2, 10-5; No. 2 Annie Hay (PG) def. Cameron Kriscunas, 6-0, 4-1, retired; No. 3 Shannon O'Brien (HHP) def. Grace Robards, 6-2, 3-6, 10-6; No. 4 Ellie Czura (HHP) def. Carissa Steichen, 6-0, 6-2; No. 5 Lexi Steichen (PG) def. Maggi Colket, 7-5, 6-1; No. 6 Ann Martin Skelly (PG) def. Katie Rankin, 6-0, 6-1.
Doubles: No. 1 Cooper/Hay (PG) def. Burak/Kriscunas, 6-0, 6-3; No. 2 Czura/Colket (HHP) def. C. Steichen/Skelly 7-6 (7-4), 5-3, retired; No. 3 O'Brien/ Jaclyn de Boer (HHP) def. Robards/L. Steichen 6-2, 5-2, retired.