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Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Firecrackers Defeat Red Hawks for Girls USTA National Spring Team Title

©Colette Lewis 2019--
Mobile, AL--

Left to right: Kayla Wilkins, Maeve Thornton, Gianna Pielet, Violeta Martinez, Sydni Ratliff, Ibifuro Clement, Coach David Thornton

On Monday, the Firecrackers were a point away from a loss to the Devils in the quarterfinals of the USTA National Spring Team Championships. But Gianna Pielet saved that match point in a third set tiebreaker that gave her team the 4-3 victory, and two days later they were gold medal winners, beating the Red Hawks 5-2 on a clear and cold day at the Mobile Tennis Center.

"We were lucky to escape that one," said Firecrackers coach David Thornton. "I think that kind of pole vaulted us into another stratosphere in terms of the team bonding a little better. We came out strong in the next couple of matches and felt good about it."

In Wednesday's final, the Firecrackers swept the three doubles matches to take the early lead, with Sydni Ratliff and Violeta Martinez taking the 16s over the Red Hawks' DJ Bennett and Filippa Bruu-Syversen 8-4. The 14s clinched the point, with Maeve Thornton and Ibifuro Clement beating Ylan Duong and Jayna Clemens 8-5. The 18s went to a tiebreaker, with Pielet and Kayla Wilkins defeating Casie Wooten and Sophia Sassoli 8-7(4).

"Always, in a match like this, the doubles point is key," said Thornton, who coaches at the Knoxville Racquet Club. "You get that point and it kind of gets you some momentum, when you know you only have to get three matches."

Ratliff was a rock all week for the Firecrackers, going 8-0 in singles and doubles, and in the final she was the first off the court with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Bennett at the No. 1 16s position.  The Red Hawks got on the board with Bruu-Syversen, who had clinched her team's 4-3 semifinal victory over the Tornados Tuesday, defeating Martinez 6-3, 6-4 at the No. 2 16s position.  Pielet brought the Firecrackers to the brink of victory with a 7-6(3), 6-2 win over Wooten at No. 1 18s, with the three remaining singles matches all in third sets.

The drama was limited however, as Thornton had run out to a 5-1 lead in the third against Duong at No. 1 14s, and she closed out the Firecrackers title with a 0-6, 7-6(4), 6-1 victory.
Thornton, the daughter of the Firecrackers coach, said the responsibility to her team and her father's advice both played a role in her comeback.

"I remembered that I was competing for myself and for my team, so that gave me extra motivation," said the 14-year-old. "My dad helped me and my confidence went up after I started playing better. I started being more aggressive, hitting my shots, and it turned around."

Coaching a team to a national title is always rewarding, but having his daughter on the team made this one doubly so for Thornton.

"It feels special," said Thornton, who previously coached at Middle Tennessee State and Vanderbilt. "It's nice obviously, working with your daughter and being on the same team as your daughter. But just to be with these girls was a good time. It was nice to get to know them. It took me a while to get a feel for the group. Usually I need to corral the team a bit, to lead them. I felt with this team, I just needed to let them have their own pace. And that worked well."

After the award ceremony, Pielet reflected on that pivotal match in the quarterfinals, and the boost it gave her and the team.

"I really had no idea at the time that we were tied, but the crowd, all the people, it was really intense, and it was fun," said the 16-year-old from El Paso Texas, who cramped in her first match, but was able to recover when Sunday's second round was washed out due to rain. "I was glad to pull out that second match against Andrea (Cerdan) 7-6 in the third. It was really tight and it was a great match. This tournament's a really good experience to get used to the college atmosphere and I had a lot of fun."

The Red Hawks got their second point when Clemens posted a 1-6, 6-1, 6-4 win over Clement at No. 2 14s, with Wilkins earning the Firecrackers fifth point with a 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-4 win over Sassoli at No. 2 18s to close out the tournament.

Red Hawks coach Nelo Phiri was pleased with the way her team competed throughout the final.

"They recognized that we were playing a tough team that was ready to do what they needed to do to win too," said Phiri, who was a graduate assistant at St. John's University prior to her current involvement with Fearless Growth. "They showed respect for their teammates and they grew from their previous matches. That was the main goal, growing from previous matches, reaching our potential while continuing to work as a team. Seeing them together after this loss, I know they'll keep a good relationship after this, and that's amazing."

Third place went to the Pirates, who beat the Tornados 4-3.

The girls sportsmanship award recipient was Katya Hersh of the Tornados.

Complete results can be found at the Tennis Link site.

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