In the mind of Whitefish Bay first singles player Sophie Lillie, it's all come full circle.
Three years ago, she was a supporting player, a callow freshman at third singles doing her part as senior state champions Lauren Gruber and Dana Larsen led the Blue Dukes to their second state team title in three seasons.
But now, Lillie is a senior at the forefront of the Blue Dukes and she's accepted her leadership duties without reservation, as she has led Bay back to the state team tournament for the first time since those heady days of 2007.
"It really is such a nice way to end things," she said after the Blue Dukes narrowly edged rival Nicolet for the sectional crown and the state berth last week. "Back then, I knew what I was and now I'm the captain along with Michelle (Croak, a state doubles qualifier). It's nice that everyone looks up to us for guidance.
"It makes us want to be better role models."
More than mentors
And in the mind of Blue Duke coach Phil Kelbe, Lillie and Croak have done far more than that.
"It has been three years," he said, "and Sophie has gone to state (as individual) in those intervening years, but then we all had the empty feeling of not going as a team, of the season ending a week early.
"Then the sectionals changed, the dynamics changed and this gave us a chance to qualify (for team state)."
But before the team state match-up with rival DSHA on Oct. 22, the Blue Dukes and the Knights will settle some scores on the personal level in WIAA state individual tournament at Nielsen Stadium in Madison this weekend.
Lillie (25-4) earned the sixth seed in singles, while Nicolet freshman Emily Mone (19-13), whom Lillie beat in a competitive three sets in the sectional final at first singles, earned consideration for a nine through 16 seed.
Other Bay and Nicolet individual qualifiers included Bay's second singles sectional champion Natalie Harland (22-6) and third singles winner Lily Hayes (24-3), and Nicolet's Sara Miller (21-11) and Emma Wathen (26-7).
Nicolet knows frustration
For Nicolet coach Tim Koppa, whose team made its first trip to team state last season in nine years (reaching the semifinals), he knows what Kelbe understands: how frustrating it can be not to finish on the very last weekend of the season.
"No question," he said. "When you come that close, it really does hurt. It just stings. We weren't able to switch our line-up the way I would have liked, but we would have needed a few breaks. Also, give Bay credit, they just played better."
The Knights first doubles team of Ariel Winter and Sari Edelman (21-5) claimed the sectional championship and earned the sixth seed at individual state, while the second team of Rajer Raj and Erin Miller (22-5) also earned a flight title and got consideration for a nine through 16 seed.
Bay's duos of Croak and Hannah Bostwick (16-11) and Elise Wirkus and Elana Ouimet (14-6) also earned individual state slots.
The Blue Dukes edged Nicolet, 51-46, for the sectional team title, helped by that critical first singles championship from Lillie.
"We couldn't take anything for granted," she said. "We'd beaten them (the Knights) before but we had to work hard because it was an exciting and important day."
Hard work at sectionals
That was emphasized in a big way in several matches at the sectional.
At third doubles, Bay's Katherine Giesa and Emma Kortebein (16-7) lost the first set, but then rallied to win the finals match over Nicolet's Claire Maxon and Cydney Katz.
"Those kids hadn't been in that kind of environment before," said Kelbe. "I was very proud of them and for the way they kept focus."
The Blue Dukes also got vital flight titles from Hayes at third singles and Emily Deblitz at fourth singles (26-1). Kelbe noted that Harland had to work hard to beat Nicolet's Sara Miller in three sets in the second singles. The two have split four matches on the season.
Koppa was understandably disappointed in the final result, but took note of how far his team had come this season.
"All the way, right through to the sectional, we kept overachieving," he said. "I was really impressed on all levels."
And Kelbe is just happy he can reward his senior leaders, including Lillie, Harland, Croak, Bostwick and Wirkus, this way.
"We knew it'd be close," he said. "This is only the second year for us in this particular sectional, so we're still figuring some things out. …
"But in the end, we knew we would have to go through Nicolet to get to state and the girls handled it well and got it done."
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