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Her balky knee still hasn’t recovered 100 percent from surgery 6 months ago, her hamstring was bothering her, and her shoulder was aching.

But what Anastasia Goncharova needed more than a physical break was a mental break on Saturday in the second set of the sectional singles championship match with rival Michelle Bacalla of Niles North.

The Evanston senior regrouped and scored the most dramatic comeback of her (short) high school career, rallying from a 5-2 deficit to defeat Bacalla for the second year in a row for the sectional crown.

Goncharova’s 6-3, 7-5 triumph in the finals of the Class 2A Niles West Sectional tournament — shifted indoors to the A.C. Nielsen Tennis Club in Winnetka due to rain — in a matchup of two players who should be seeded in the top 4 of the Illinois High School Association state tournament next week was a testament to her ability to dig deep and not buckle under pressure.

She’ll be joined by Evanston doubles players Annie Hedges and Margot Connor, who qualified as the fourth place finishers, at the IHSA state tourney set to open next Thursday at various sites in the northwest suburbs.

The trio led ETHS to an actual tie for the team title with New Trier, both with 16 points, but the Trevians won a tiebreaker and earned the first place trophy.
Goncharova dominated Bacalla for the second week in a row in the first set, but fell behind 5-2 in the second set. That was the turning point for the hard-hitting southpaw.

“It was just awesome the way Anastasia turned things around in that second set,” praised ETHS head coach Joyce Anderson. “She just needed a mental break when it was 5-2. I told her just to sit there and not think about anything. I could tell that she was getting mentally fatigued, and when that happens you start making bad decisions. She had to get away from that.

“I knew she could win even though Michelle had really turned it on at that point. Anastasia played smarter and she played tougher when she went back out there.”

A rejuvenated Goncharova reeled off five straight wins to capture the crown she also won in 2016, when she became the first player in the history of the ETHS program to win a sectional singles championship.

“It was a big win for me in a really tough match,” said the excited senior. “We both played out of our minds today. This is the first match I’ve had to grind out since I hurt my knee (last spring). Michelle was really playing out of her mind in that second set, and all you can do in that situation is try to grind it out.

“I’m very hard on myself and sometimes I get stuck in my own head when I’m making mistakes.  But when coach told me to stop thinking about it, and when I Iooked and saw that I had so many people supporting me there in the stands, I knew I should be happy about that. So I loosened up and started playing like I did in the first set. I just went after it.

“Grinding it out, and not giving up, is part of my personality and that was the key in this match. This was a really big comeback for me, and I’m really happy with the way I was able to stay focused.”

Bacalla, who split two earlier matches this season with Goncharova, actually trailed 2-1 in the second set but used her booming serve to pull ahead and seemed destined to force a climactic third set.

But Goncharova won the next game to make it 5-3 — scored a crosscourt game-winner to pull to within 5-4 — and got even at 5-all when Bacalla sliced a shot out of bounds on the side.

It was all Evanston after that, and Goncharova sealed the win by scoring the last four points of the afternoon for the 7-5 triumph.

Goncharova, now 19-1 on the season, breezed into the finals with consecutive straight set wins over Amy Beard of Loyola Academy (6-0, 6-0), Josie Blumenthal of Lane Tech (6-1, 6-0) and Stephanie Lao of Von Steuben (6-1, 6-0) on Friday.

Like Goncharova, the No. 1 doubles team of Connor and Hedges knew by Friday night that they had clinched a chance to play at the state tourney. That made back-to-back losses to top seeds Amia Ross and Ali Benedetto of New Trier (6-0, 6-0) and Maggie Hines and Elizabeth Witkowski of Loyola Academy (6-0, 6-3) on Saturday  easier to swallow for the two juniors.

The two players are a team for the first time this year and experienced some growing pains in an up-and-down season. Matched up against the teams from New Trier and Loyola, their lack of experience was evident.

But a 12-8 overall record and the chance to build some experience with a prolonged stay at the state tourney will help the duo end their junior seasons on a positive note, according to Anderson.

“I thought they played the best they’ve played all season yesterday,” the coach praised. “For this sectional they’re the new kids on the block, but we talked about just keeping it simple and doing the things that you do well. They played really well to put that No. 2 Loyola team (Maeve Silk/Catherine Power) away to advance (with a 6-3, 6-4 triumph).

“Margot is our second best player and I knew coming into the season that I had to find a doubles partner for her. I knew she probably wouldn’t make it out of the sectional in singles, and she needed someone who was fast and active at the net — and someone who was always positive and upbeat — as a partner to go with her big shots. Annie showed last year that she has the best doubles instinct, and knows where to go and what shots to hit, so she seemed the obvious choice.”

Still, it was a giant step forward for Hedges to make, considering she played in the No. 4 doubles slot as a sophomore in the varsity lineup.

“Coach thought at the beginning of the year that we’d make it to State, but I thought uh, I don’t know — maybe?” Hedges said. “But we’re both really excited to qualify. The outcome today was not nearly what we wanted, but making it to State trumps that.

“It’s been fun playing doubles with Margot and I think we’ve really grown as a team. We took what we could get from Loyola in that second set (and actually led 3-2), because we were a little less hesitant and we were going for it on every shot. But then we fell apart.”

In the one (loss) and done sectional tourney format, ETHS also received contributions from Lola Knight and the other doubles entry of Lily Magid and Mary Hays with a victory apiece before they were eliminated.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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