Margot Connor and Annie Hedges didn’t exactly play their best tennis Saturday at the Niles West Sectional tournament.

But they kept their season alive and will get another opportunity to put their collective best foot forward next week at the Illinois High School Association state tournament.

The Evanston doubles team earned a trip to the IHSA tourney for the second year in a row by placing fourth and will compete in the double-elimination meet at a site to be determined in the northwest suburbs beginning on Thursday. They’ll take a record of 13-9 into their first-round matchup.

Already assured of automatic advancement after scoring two wins in see-your-breath cold weather conditions on Friday, the Wildkit duo dropped back-to-back decisions to New Trier’s Emily Dale and Lily Bhote (6-4, 6-2) and Loyola Academy’s Liz Witkowski and Catherine Power (7-5, 6-1) en route to that fourth place finish on Saturday.

Urged on constantly by head coach Joyce Anderson to shift into attack mode and stay aggressive, the two ETHS seniors couldn’t muster the drive needed to live up to their No. 3 tourney seed.

“We did get aggressive and when we did, we scored some good points,” said Hedges. “But we also shanked some shots and we had a hard time bouncing back from that when we were down.

“We already knew we were going back to State again and we’re excited about going. But knowing that played with our mindset today, I think.”

“I think if today was the qualifying day, we’d have played a lot harder,” Connor agreed. “We know we can play better.”

The partners opened tourney play Friday with triumphs against Lane Tech’s Shawn Sinha and Maribay Wilke (6-0, 7-5) and Niles West’s Aleksandra Manojilovic and Isabel Lodge (6-1, 6-4) to advance to the semifinals.

On Saturday, Hedges’ play at the net and power serving by Connor kept the Kits close to New Trier in the first set after they trailed 4-0. Two poach shots by  Hedges pulled the pair within 5-4, but then Dale served out the set with four straight points.

Struggles at the service line by Hedges (“I was trying hard, but I just couldn’t find my rhythm”) made the second set an uphill battle all the way.

In the third place match versus Loyola, missed serves cost Evanston a chance to secure that first set with a 5-4 advantage, before Power and Witkowski combined to snatch the last three games.

“Today was very anticlimactic for them,” admitted Anderson, who has now sent qualifiers to the IHSA state meet for 6 straight years. “You can’t play your best every day, and now it’s just time for us to move on.

“I don’t think it was complacency after (qualifying) Friday. I think they set their goals too low — a lot of high school tennis players do that — and they were just happy to make it to State. It’s been a long slog to keep them playing aggressive, although they’ve come a long way as a team that way. Against Loyola they just sat back and played Loyola’s game. Loyola just waited for mistakes.

“My hope for next week? That will depend on the draw. I’m hoping they can make it to Day 2 this year.”

Hedges and Connor were eliminated at State last year with a 1-2 won-loss record after Anderson decided to pair them as doubles partners midway through their junior season.

Connor began the 2018 campaign as the No. 1 singles player for ETHS, but Anderson decided to reunite the duo halfway through the season.

Hedges was glad to get the chance play again with her classmate.

“I really didn’t know what to expect at the beginning of the season,” Hedges said. “I had a feeling Coach would put Margot in singles. When she put us back together I was really happy because I have so much fun with Margot as my partner. No matter what we’re laughing on the court.”

Both of Evanston’s singles entries, Valerie Abusevich and Lucinda Lindland, were eliminated in the early rounds on Friday along with the other doubles team of Leah Altman and Sophia Demopoulos.

Abusevich bowed to the eventual champion, New Trier junior Ali Benedetto, by a 6-0, 6-0 margin in the second round and Lindland was knocked out in a 6-0, 6-0 decision against No. 2 seed Steffi Lao of Von Steuben.

In doubles, Altman and Demopoulos scored a split, beating Shelly Sabaricos and Bryanna Manogura of Niles West 6-1, 6-3, before losing to eventual champs Macy Zaban and Ashtin Hara of New Trier, 6-1 and 6-1.

As a team, ETHS placed third in the team standings with 14 points behind only New Trier (36) and Loyola (15) in the 9-team field.  

Dennis Mahoney

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

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