After advancing to the championship contest with matching 5-0 wins (Maharishi defeated Denison-Schlesweg and Decorah defeated LeMars), Decorah and Maharishi School squared off at Waveland Park in Des Moines on Tuesday.
"We knew it was coming...Decorah knew it was coming," said Pioneer coach, Steve Briggs. "After seeing Decorah at last year's finals (Decorah finished 3rd in 2014) we'd been preparing for them all season."
After posing for team photos beneath overcast skies, the Pioneers put the first point on the board behind their captain Sam Stickels' strong play. Decorah countered with a win at #5 when Gable Lonning defeated Caleb Mullenneaux. The tone was set, the momentum swung back and forth as the teams alternated wins.
When the singles scores were posted, the match stood 3-3, the Pioneers winning the top 3 positions.
Two matches proved pivotal. At #2, Chandre Morales bounced back after losing the first set, scoring a 4-6, 7-5, 6-1, keeping his perfect post season team record intact (14-0 from 2013-2015). At #6 position, the Pioneers held a commanding 6-0, 3-0 lead, but were unable to close out the match.
"I got out-coached," mused Briggs. "At #6 we were rolling along. Daniel had won the first 9 games so I shifted to Chandre's match because he was down a set and 5 all in the second. But while I was gone, Decorah changed tactics on us. It was a perfect counter to Daniel's strong play, and we were unable to find a way to right the ship once the momentum shifted."
The doubles matches were also a see-saw affair. Decorah struck first at #2 before the Pioneers duo of Stickels and Morales evened the match with a dominant performance at #1.
Decorah's #1 & #2 teams finished 4th & 6th at state and their #3 team was anchored by senior Ryan Hagemen, the 7th place finisher in state singles.
"Heading into doubles, we knew a mountain of experience stood between us and the trophy," said Briggs. "Only two of our players started the season with varsity experience. That said, we never would have reached the finals without our young guns. In the end, we lost to a well coached veteran squad."
The throng of Decorah supporters lining the hill behind the courts erupted when their players closed out #3 doubles. The defending state champions had been dethroned by the narrowest margin.
"When I was a kid there was a popular TV show called 'Sports Spectacular,' recalled Briggs. "The show's theme was 'the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.' I think it's fair to say that we experienced both those emotions these past two seasons. Last year I was pinching myself at our good fortune, but this year the stars didn't line up the way we hoped they would."
"I'm confident our string of 11 consecutive state final appearances will continue next year," concluded Briggs.
#1 Sam Stickels (MSAE) def. Caleb Ulring 6-3, 6-0
#2 Chandre Morales (MSAE) def Ryan Hageman 4-6, 7-5, 6-1
#3 Kai Vessey (MSAE) def Brett LaRue 6-4, 6-0
#4 Karl Sand (Dec) def David Wadsworth 6-3, 6-4
#5 Gable Lonning (Dec) def Caleb Mullenneaux 6-3, 6-1
#6 Ross Gentry (Dec) def Daniel Zhu 0-6, 6-4, 6-4
#1 Stickels/Morales (MSAE) def Ulring/Sand 6-1, 6-3
#2 LaRue/Lonning (Dec) def Wadsworth/Mullenneaux 6-2, 6-2
#3 Hageman/Gentry (Dec) def Vessey/Zhu 6-3, 6-3