Apr. 16—CUMBERLAND — It's been nearly two years since Bishop Walsh and Southern took to the tennis courts for an official match due to COVID.
Despite some understandable rust, the two teams waged a competitive match as the Rams rode their singles to beat the Spartans, 3-2, at LaVale District Park on Thursday night.
"BW came out strong on their singles side and gave us a little scare there at first," Southern head coach Todd Toothman said, "and then we kind of battled back and took control of things. And those second sets went our way.
"Hats off to BW, they really came out and surprised us and played well."
Southern swept the singles with Gracie Custer scoring a straight-sets win over Mary Wolodkin (6-4, 6-2) in first singles, and Rayven Francillon doing the same with a two sets to love victory over Grace Bearinger (6-4, 6-0) in second singles.
Bishop Walsh won 2 of 3 doubles matches. The Ram duo of Meghan Bittinger and Emma Horner got by Sydney Bearinger and Haleigh Cromwell (7-6, 6-3) to secure the 3-2 match win. The Spartans took second and third doubles, as Ava DiNola/Catherine Vassiliadi beat Sophie Bishoff/Alayna Weeks (6-3, 7-5), and Sarah Wharton/Lydia Vassiliadi cruised against Caroline Argabrite/Brooke Rose (6-2, 6-1).
"I was really happy with how our players played," BW head coach John Meyers said. "We had to shake the rust off a little bit, but I was especially impressed with our doubles players down the stretch. Our singles players, they were well-matched, but they fought hard."
The first singles pitted a clash of incongruent styles.
Southern's big-hitting Custer, an offensive baseliner constantly probing for an opening to end points, was tested by the crafty Wolodkin, a speedy pusher.
An example of this dichotomy of styles was evident with Wolodkin looking to break and get back on serve down 3-1 in the first set.
Wolodkin absorbed back-to-back line clippers, one on each baseline, only to send a third well-struck Custer groundstroke cross-court for the backhand winner. Though the Spartan doesn't have the fire-power of her Ram counterpart, she used Custer's pace to her advantage.
"Just with her demeanor and her facial expressions, she was showing that she was up to the challenge, and we were really happy about that" Meyers said of Wolodkin. "She's only a junior so she still has a year to develop."
Custer eventually made the adjustment. After taking the first set, the senior ripped another deep cross-court forehand, and again, Wolodkin was there for the dig to send it back.
But Custer crossed her up, going back up the baseline instead of sending it crosscourt to catch Wolodkin leaning the wrong way.
In her first varsity match in 2019, Custer responded well to the mental challenge.
"When you practice and play a baseline game, you play with power, and you come out and someone throws a curveball at you and changes the pace," Toothman said, "it's something you haven't played against or practiced against. That's something you have to adjust to, and Grace did a good job of that."
The second singles matchup was a more traditional one between two offensive baseliners.
Francillon, a senior, showcased her natural powerful serve and groundstrokes, while also displaying defensive acumen.
Meanwhile, sophomore Grace Bearinger showed a lot of potential with her topspin-heavy left-handed forehands. Meyer said the up-and-comer is "by far the best groundstroke player" on the Spartans.
There was a lot in the first set, as the pair crushed shot after shot and traded holds. Bearinger was broken serving at 4-all, and an opportunistic Francillion held to quickly take the opening set.
Bearinger struggled physically in the second set, and Francillion only got stronger to secure the bagel.
"She just didn't have enough gas in that second set and Rayven saw what was happening and moved her around," Toothman said.
After taking both singles matches, Southern needed just one of the three doubles, and Bittinger and Horner delivered to secure the Rams a season-opening win.
"We have a lot of work to do after what I saw today," Toothman said. "These girls are relentless, these girls put in all the effort, all the hours. No doubt they're going to want to hit the gym ASAP and build on where we are today.
"Hats off to BW, they have a great team and they're going to do very well."
Southern is at Frankfort on Monday at 4 p.m. while Bishop Walsh faces St. James on Thursday at 4:30 p.m.
Alex Rychwalski is a sportswriter at the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter @arychwal.