By Pam Shebest
Special for Second Half
KALAMAZOO — On his seventh match point at No. 1 singles, Benji Jacobson smashed an overhead winner and had a feeling this was an important victory.
With just two matches left on Kalamazoo College’s Stowe Stadium courts, Jacobson’s win gave Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood a one-point win over perennial nemesis Detroit Country Day to clinch the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 3 championship for the second year in a row.
Cranbrook tallied 34 points to Country Day’s 33.
St. Joseph, with two flight champions, tied with East Grand Rapids for third (20 points) and Ada Forest Hills Eastern was fifth with 18.
The title chase was so close that after the doubles semifinals and before any singles semis finished, Cranbrook and Country Day were tied at 28 points each, prompting tournament director Paul Ballard to comment, “This is the first time I can remember that there were two perfect team scores by this time.”
Jacobson, the top seed who was Division 3 champ at No. 2 last year, defeated the second seed, Holland Christian senior Ryan Rhoades, 6-3, 6-4.
“I won on the seventh match point,” Jacobson said. “March 7 is my birthday, so I guess that’s kind of a lucky number.
“I knew in the back of my head my team needed me. It’s the team. It’s all about the team. That’s what I do it for.”
He said when he realized his match could be the clincher, “I was just like, get to net. That’s my game.
“I came to net and hit an overhead winner. That’s the best feeling in the world, being a state champion.”
Cranbrook coach Jeff Etterbeek said he wasn’t surprised Jacobson won the clincher.
“He’s been our anchor all year,” Etterbeek said. “He’s just a class act, a great player. It’s nice to have that in our stable, that thoroughbred in our stable.”
Etterbeek expected a tough tournament from Country Day.
“They beat us 5-3 in the dual, we beat them 5-3 in the Regional,” he said. “There were a lot of three sets so we knew it was going to be nip and tuck at the states.
“We were down the first set in all four doubles matches and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, man.’ The fact that we could win two of those meant everything.”
Country Day coach Brian DeVirgilio said it came down to nerves.
“The difference was just a couple matches here or there,” he said. “It was just a matter of nerves when you get down to it at the last minute.
“It’s just whoever can get a few more balls in the court. It’s so close right down the line. It’s just a matter of who can get a few more balls in at the end.”
Rhoades lost in the semifinals at No. 2 singles last year.
“Last year at 2 I had a good season but I had things to work on and that’s what I worked on to get better,” he said. “That resulted in me going up to No. 1 and making the finals instead of the semifinals.
“Today (Jacobson) got up 4-0 in the second set and that put a lot of pressure on me to get going. It’s kinda hard to come back from 4-0, especially on him because he’s a good player. I gave it all I had there and he still won. I tip my head to him.”
The No. 2 singles finals featured the only female, second-seeded St. Joseph senior Ahmeir Kyle, pulling out a 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 win over Country Day freshman Nick Gruskin, the top seed, in the last match on court.
“He started playing a lot better in the second set and it was getting in my head,” Kyle said. “I just had to pull it together.
“I just stayed focused and had to get back to how I was playing in the first set. Just stay consistent and keep pressing.”
Kyle played on the boys team as a freshman, losing in the MHSAA Final at No. 4 singles. She said she opted to do so again this year so she can run track in the spring.
She said she has had no problems competing against boys, but “some of them, it gets to their ego, but most of them think it’s cool.”
Gruskin was devastated at not getting the point for his team.
“I just worked hard, tried to help my teammates as much as I could,” he said. “I couldn’t get it done today.
“I didn’t expect to be the last match on. She was really good, she really was. I gotta give credit to her. She hit the ball really hard. She made a lot of balls.”
DeVirgilio said having Gruskin get to the final was a surprise.
“He really played well for us all year,” the coach said. “He’s done really well. He’s had a great year at No. 2.
“We didn’t really expect him to be as successful as he has. He did a really, really good job.”
At No. 3 singles, freshman Will Page, the top seed, gave St. Joseph its second champ with a 6-1, 6-2 win over second-seeded Justin Luo, a Cranbrook sophomore.
Making his MHSAA Finals debut, Page said: “I expected to do pretty well in this tournament, but mainly I realized I had to get to the final and bring it home for my school.
“I just tried grinding out every point. Mainly I give it to God in that match, every point. I hit some great shots and I would say I just gave it to God in that match.”
Luo said he thinks Page was more prepared.
“I think he came out more ready than I was,” Luo said. “I was a little nervous; I was a little tight. I was hitting the ball short at the beginning.
“I was making too many errors. He stayed solid, hit the ball when he had to. I just wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t expect it.”
Luo said winning the team title this year was sweeter than last.
“Last year we kinda locked it up (winning the title with 38 points to Country Day’s 30). We were the best; there was no question.
“This year there were a lot of questions. This year we lost to DCD in the dual match. We barely pulled it out (Saturday).”
At No. 4 singles, Country Day’s top seed, Eric Wang, was leading 6-2, 2-3 when Cranbrook freshman Sohum Acharya, the second seed, retired after cramping.
“I didn’t want it to end this way, but I felt like he put out a good fight and I put out a good fight. It was a good match,” Wang said.
More surprising is that Wang was a reserve on the team last season.
“I felt like this year I really stepped up, and I’m really proud of how I performed,” he added. “The secret for me was putting a lot of time in the offseason. Also, determination and hard work and making sure that I wasn’t giving up on any points. I was going for the ball at all costs.”
Acharya said even the four bananas he ate didn’t help alleviate the leg cramps.
“I hope to use what I learned (in the tournament) and try to use it to get back here next year and hopefully win,” he said.
“I learned that sometimes you have to adjust your play style depending on how the other guy plays and, in my case, I had to be more consistent.”
The doubles finals were also hotly contested with loud cheers, hoots and hollers often erupting from the bleachers lining the back courts.
Cranbrook and Country Day fought for the title in every doubles final, with each school winning two.
At No. 1, Cranbrook’s top seeds, senior Michael Bian and junior Andrew Du, defeated second seeds, sophomore Rick Warnicke and junior Ryan Murakawa, 5-7, 6-1, 6-3.
At No. 2, Country Day’s top seeds, seniors Kavon Rahmani and Milind Rao defeated second seeds, junior Jacob Yellen and sophomore Joe Croskey, 7-5, 6-0.
At No. 3, Country Day’s second-seeded juniors Nate Thewes and Tommy Nardicchio upset top seeds, senior Blake Fisher and sophomore Nikhil Deenadayalu, 6-4, 6-2.
At No. 4, Cranbrook’s top seeds, junior Eshaan Kawira and sophomore Jack Trees, fought back after losing the first set, 1-6, to second seeds, junior Prathik Chukkapelli and sophomore Nick Sicilia, for a 1-6, 6-2, 6-4 win.
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PHOTOS: (Top) Cranbrook Kingswood’s Benji Jacobson returns a volley during a Saturday match at the Division 3 Final. (Middle) St. Joseph’s Ahmeir Kyle begins a serve during her championship win at No. 2 singles. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)