Stories about comebacks don’t always have happy endings.
The scoreboard said Evanston senior Anastasia Goncharova was on the wrong end of a three-set finale in the singles finals at the Illinois High School Association Class 2A state tennis tournament Saturday at Buffalo Grove High School.
But did Goncharova feel like a loser after placing 2nd in the state of Illinois for the 2nd year in a row?
Top-seeded Kolie Allen of Glenbard East pulled away in the final set from the sweet-swinging ETHS southpaw for a 6-2, 4-6, 6-1 triumph and ended Goncharova’s bid to become the first female tennis champion in school history.
But the defeat couldn’t diminish an amazing season that began with the Evanston senior working feverishly on rehabilitating her right knee following surgery last spring.
Fierce competitor though she is, Goncharova was just happy to be there Saturday, competing at an elite level once again.
“Last year when I lost in such a heartbreaking manner (also in 3 sets), I was disappointed,” Goncharova said while surrounded Saturday by teammates and well-wishers, including the surgeon who performed the operation. “But right now 2nd place doesn’t matter. I feel like I won this.
“Before the season I had no expectations at all. I remember lying down in bed after the surgery and wondering if I’d ever even be able to bend my knee again. I didn’t know what would happen, and I can’t believe all that I did. I’m super proud no matter what the results are. I’m just happy that I was healthy and able to play this year.”
A checklist of Goncharova’s accomplishments as a senior would include a single season school mark for victories — at 24-2 she broke the record she shared with Brigit Larson with 21. She also became the first ETHS player to reach the state championship match in back-to-back seasons, and was also the first to claim Central Suburban League South division and sectional championships.
Goncharova finished her two-year career at ETHS — she didn’t join the high school team until her junior year — with a 45-6 won-loss record. Her 5 consecutive victories at the 3-day state tournament, combined with one win from the doubles team of Annie Hedges and Margot Connor, lifted Evanston to a tie for 10th place in the team standings along with Deerfield and Lake Forest at 13 points apiece.
ETHS head coach Joyce Anderson previously called Goncharova “a once in a lifetime player” and didn’t see anything this weekend that would change her mind.
“What she did for us at Evanston is Hall of Fame material, in my opinion,” Anderson said. “It’s been a pleasure for me coaching her. Her presence on this team was really something.
“She came back better than ever from the injury, and that’s so tough to do. I think she’s a better player than she was last year — her mental game is much better, her serve is much better, everything is better — and sometimes when bad things happen it can have a good result.
“Anastasia’s a fighter, and that comeback she had in the second set was just awesome. But Allen (an Ohio State University recruit) is such a force out there, and she didn’t waver. She really brought it at the end.”
“I’m happy with the way I was able to recover today (from an exhausting 6-3, 7-6 (8) win over Deerfield’s Emily Casati in the semifinals). I’ve played Kolie many times before, and I’ve never beaten her. But I think this is the best I’ve ever played against her,” said Goncharova.
“In the first set I was nervous and she didn’t have to do too much against me. Then I relaxed and started going after my shots. Winning that second set took everything I had out of me, though. I battled just to get to that third set.”
Allen broke Goncharova’s serve in the third game of the third set and the ETHS standout saw her hitting errors pile up on the way to defeat. Allen grabbed the momentum and didn’t let go on her way to the title.
Goncharova’s path to the title match included straight-set victories against Maja Kozerski of Maine West (6-1, 6-1); Sarah Williams of Whitney Young (6-0, 6-0); Olivia Oosterbaan of Hinsdale Central (6-2, 6-0) and Zoe Taylor of Stevenson (6-3, 6-3) leading up to Saturday’s showdowns.
In the semifinals against Casati, whose father actually competed for ETHS back in the 1970s, Goncharova rushed the net more frequently than usual and the strategy mostly paid off. She did it to conserve energy, but the match still lasted more than 3 hours.
Casati cut into a 5-2 lead and forced the tiebreaker, which Goncharova won 10-8. The Evanston southpaw was actually just one point away from victory in regulation play, but Casati refused to go down without a fight.
“I don’t think I relaxed out there,” Goncharova said. “She just started playing better, and I cooled off a little.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.