RIVERSIDE, Mo. — Ian Cunliff always expected the rematch to be tighter, intimately familiar with the history of a minor rivalry developing over the years.
Park Hill South’s coach endured a few tense moments early and late but ultimately celebrated a Class 2 District 15 championship after the Panthers’ 5-3 win over St. Teresa Academy on Wednesday, Sept. 27 at Park Hill South High School in Riverside, Mo. They have won three straight against the Stars, including each of the last two district finals.
“I tried to make it as light as possible. My girls play best when they’re happy,” Cunliff said. “We tried to be relaxed, tried to have a lot of fun, stay positive as much as possible. There were nerves, but I’d like to think as a coach I’ve matured enough that I don’t get super nervous.
“Realistically, I was a little concerned, we’ll say.”
Park Hill South took a 7-2 victory in the teams’ regular season matchup earlier in the season.
However, St. Teresa’s grabbed early leads in two of the three doubles matches to apply some pressure. Park Hill South’s sister duo of senior Abby Norris and sophomore Chloe Norris also saw an early 5-0 lead nearly evaporate against Maggie Fielder and Lauren Andriano.
St. Teresa’s top duo came back to close within 5-4 and 6-5 before the Norris sisters overcame some struggles with the serve to earn an 8-5 win.
“We pulled through and got it,” said Abby Norris, the lone senior in Park Hill South’s lineup.
Cunliff made major changes to the doubles teams from the first matchup with St. Teresa’s.
The Norris sisters went to the Class 2 Missouri State Tennis Championships last year in doubles but have spent more time apart this season. Reunited for the last few duals, Cunliff put them back at No. 1 and reversed the result at that spot from the first meeting with St. Teresa’s.
“This year, I think we’ve both matured more and gotten past the whole sister thing,” Abby Norris said. “We’ve learned to play with each other. We both have the talents physically. It’s just about staying positive mentally.”
Some of the lineup changes happened with sophomore all-stater Eva Kresovic missing time with a back injury. She returned for the Class 2 District 15 semifinal and received her first real test against St. Teresa’s.
Kresovic and Leah Gehrke fell behind 3-0 early at No. 2 doubles but took a 7-5 lead late with Kresovic serving the next game. She started with a double fault but ended the match with a strong volley to make it 2-1 Park Hill South.
“I’m finding my rhythm,” Kresovic said. “I just really wasn’t there mentally. I just stayed with it mentally and focused on each point. I made a lot of errors, and it wasn’t our best doubles effort for sure but we managed to pull it out.”
St. Teresa’s tied it with a quick 6-0, 6-0 win for Adriano against Chloe Norris, but Kresovic earned a dominant 6-2, 6-2 win over Fielder at No. 1. Gehrke’s 6-1, 6-0 win at No. 5 put Park Hill South on the brink, but the Panthers waited for No. 6 Claudia Chou to finish off her two-set sweep to finish the dual.
With the win, Park Hill South advanced into the playoffs for the 11th straight season, and the players now shift the focus to taking the team to the Class 2 Missouri State Tennis Championships for the first time in program history.
“Our girls are such a tight-knit group, I think, more than anything,” Cunliff said. “Yeah, having your best player back is beneficial, but the team aspect — feeling whole again — I think is what has boosted them the most.”
Park Hill South advances to play in Class 2 sectionals Saturday, Oct. 7 against District 14 champion Blue Springs (10-3) in Liberty, Mo. The Panthers won the previous matchup between the two this season by a score of 7-2.
The winner of that dual advances to play either District 16 champion Liberty (15-4) or Lee’s Summit West (13-4). Park Hill South beat Liberty 7-2 earlier this year but lost 5-4 to Lee’s Summit West without Kresovic in the lineup.