One. Missed. Shot.
That’s all that may have stood between the McCallie tennis team losing in the TSSAA Division II Class AA state championship match for the first time in four years on Wednesday afternoon as it struggled to defeat Memphis University School.
And sophomore Henry Imorde was facing not just one match point in his battle with MUS’s Sam Schroerlucke at Murfreesboro’s Adams Tennis Complex. He was facing three match points.
Having already lost the first set, if he failed to convert any one of those three points, a lot of pressure would have fallen solely on the shoulders of junior Gabe Getz to pull out his match against Justin Martin, which was already headed to a third set.
“And you never know how that could go,” said McCallie Head Coach Jeff Clark. “Suddenly, all the momentum would be with them, and Justin was playing great. One point can make a huge difference in a match this close.”
But somehow, some way, Imorde not only fought off those three match points at 4-5 but rallied to win the set in a tiebreaker, then quickly jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the third and deciding set.
“Just trying to give myself one more chance,” said Imorde. “Just focusing on each point, one at a time. Definitely one of the hardest matches of my life.”
Added assistant coach Meg Bandy one of her pieces of advice to Imorde down the stretch of that second set: “I just told Henry to hit it down the middle to start the point, then go wide to his forehand. And it worked.”
Meanwhile, on the next court, a large contingent of McCallie students, faculty, and friends wildly cheered every point Getz won as he grittily fought off cramps in both legs.
Getz rallied from his second-set loss to Martin to roll to a 6-1 win in the third and clinch the state title before being mobbed by teammates. He soon fell to the court, overwhelmed by cramps on the humid day as McCallie trainer Jersey DeMarco worked frantically to relieve his pain.
And watching all this from the start of the match, Head of School Lee Burns, a pretty fair tennis player himself in the mid-1980s, smiled and said, “This is awesome. McCallie tennis has such a special place in my heart. We may be the best team in America, and we’ve definitely got the best coaching staff in America. And what a great crowd, too. To see so many of our students and faculty here is amazing.”
It was amazingly closer than anyone had predicted it would be. McCallie had topped Montgomery Bell Academy 4-0 in Tuesday’s semifinal round and appeared to be on cruise control for its fourth straight crown.
But then MUS won the doubles point, The Blue Tornado No. 1 player Andreas Sillaste was stunned in straight sets, and Imolde lost his opening set. The math and path to the title were growing shakier by the minute.
“We took someone’s best punch, and we punched right back,” said Clark as he addressed his team afterward. “Give yourselves a hand.”
Despite its undefeated record, Clark explained this team endured some growing pains.
“Every team is different,” he said. “It took a while for our chemistry to build. But this is a very special group. We took an unbelievable punch from MUS and still found a way to win.”
And while Imorde and Getz delivered gut-check performances under severe pressure, Sean Clark, Juozas Cioladis, and Richy Jing each won their singles matches in straight sets.
“This team has been fighting hard all year,” said Eric Voges, McCallie’s former head coach, who still works daily with the program. “There’s no arrogance or sense of entitlement. They just play hard every match. It makes them tough to beat.”
Indeed, for all the nervousness running through the team and its fans, Clark correctly pointed out at the match’s end: “Two-and-a-half hours ago, we were facing six singles matches, needing to win four. We won four and were ahead in a fifth. Pretty good effort.”
His legs betraying him, nothing less than a state title on the line; no one’s effort was better than Getz, who dyed his hair blond for the state, then went out and backed up his bold gesture when it mattered most.
“I love the hair,” grinned Clark.
Getz loved the result. Sitting on a bench as DeMarco continued to work on his cramps, he said, “I will remember this one for a long time.”
He won’t be alone.