The Houston Academy boys tennis team showed their quality depth during the AHSAA Class 1A-2A-3A State Championships Monday and Tuesday.
Despite a stunning early tournament loss by their No. 1 singles players and a finals loss at No. 1 doubles, the Raiders still overpowered the eight-team field at Montgomery’s Lagoon Park.
Behind five individual state champions and two titles in doubles, Houston Academy rolled to its fourth straight state title, easily outdistancing runner-up Montgomery Catholic. The Raiders finished with 54 points and Catholic 30.
Houston Academy freshman Kenza Bilbesi won a state title at No. 3 singles, becoming the first Raiders girls player to win a state title since Nicola Voss in 2015.
The Houston Academy girls, playing at state for the first time since 2018, finished fifth out of nine scoring teams with 12 points. Bayside Academy won the title, holding off Donoho.
The HA boys took a hit early on Monday when Mitchell Piedra, last year’s Dothan Eagle Player of the Year and a state champion last year, lost in the first round at No. 1 singles.
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Piedra and Andrew Ayodeji also lost at No. 1 doubles.
Others, though, stepped up.
“Depth is what did it for us this year,” Houston Academy head coach Brian Hart said. “When we lost Mitchell (Piedra on Monday), I had so much confidence in 4-5-6 (singles) and the three doubles teams. I felt very good that we had great chances in all those draws.”
Hart’s faith was justified. HA players Ayodeji (No. 2), Brody Williams (No. 3), Jason Mun (No. 4), Wills McRae (No. 5) and Thomas Buntin (No. 6) all finished as individual champions. The No. 2 doubles team of Williams and Mun and the No. 3 tandem of McRae and Buntin also captured titles. All won three matches to claim a state title.
“It hurts for the No. 1 to go down,” Hart said. “That is the team leader. If the No. 1 goes down, it is temporarily demoralizing, but we knew we had the lead and we knew we were in more brackets, so we had the advantage still. But yeah, it was a gut punch for him to go down, but we still felt like we were in the driver’s seat.”
Ayodeji, the Raiders’ lone senior, won a pair of straight set matches to reach the finals at No. 2 where he had to face Montgomery Catholic’s Sebastian Sayegh.
“Early in the season, he beat me in straight sets and we lost to them (to Catholic) in (No. 1) doubles, so I really felt like I had to win the finals against him just to get that off my back,” Ayodeji said.
The two split the first two sets with Ayodeji winning the first 6-4 and Sayegh the second set 6-2. It appeared like the match would go down to the wire as the two were tied 5-5 in the 10-point tiebreaker, but Ayodeji seized the momentum and won five straight points to take the set 10-5.
“This is one of the best tiebreakers I have ever played in my life, winning the last five points,” Ayodeji said. “That was a great feeling.”
Ayodeji said his serve was key to the title match win.
“I have been working on my serve a lot,” Ayodeji said, referring to work in the last two weeks. “It had kind of been letting me down, but at the tournament, it came through.”
Ayodeji said winning a title was beginning to hit him an hour after the completion of the tournament.
“It is crazy,” Ayodeji said. “I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to win especially for our No. 1 player, Mitchell, after he lost to Catholic. I really wanted it, not just for him and myself, but for the entire team. The fact it came in a tiebreaker made it like a Cinderella ending. It is kind of surreal.”
Williams, a sophomore, won at No. 3, taking the finals win over Mark Osten of Montgomery Catholic in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4.
Mun, a freshman, captured the title at No. 4, winning in comeback fashion in the finals over Liam Munnings of Westminster of Oak Mountain, 3-6, 6-4, 10-6.
McRae, a freshman, claimed the crown at No. 5 singles, beating Whitesburg Christian’s David Holaway in dominating fashion, 6-0, 6-0.
Buntin, a freshman, won at No. 6 singles, beating Porter Lunsford of Westminster of Oak Mountain in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2.
In doubles, the No. 2 team of Williams and Mun won the title over T.R. Miller’s Herrington Hobbs and Caleb Ray in straight sets, 6-1, 6-1.
The No. 3 duo of McRae/Buntin won their title with a 6-1, 6-1 win over Lunsford and Wesley Eyrich of Westminster.
The No. 1 doubles teams of Piedra and Ayodeji won two matches to reach the finals before losing to Montgomery Catholic’s Cooper Davis and Sayegh.
Piedra lost in the opening round at No. 1 to Davis, 4-6, 7-6, 10-7.
HA’s Bilbeisi wins girls title
After three straight losses to Bayside Academy’s Lillie McInnis, including one in last season’s section tournament, HA’s Kenza Bilbeisi beat McInnis when it mattered most at Tuesday’s state tournament.
The Raider freshman overcame a first-set loss with two strong sets to win it, 3-6, 6-2, 10-6.
“I was just focused,” Bilbeisi said. “I didn’t want to lose.”
Bilbeisi also overcame a scoring dispute during the first set with the score 4-3 in favor of McInnis. It resulted in a replay and McInnis eventually won the set.
“It got me upset, but it motivated me to win more,” Bilbeisi said.
Hart said the freshman showed the poise of a veteran to overcome the dispute.
“It could have easily carried over to the second set, but she got her mind right and got reset and played great the rest of the way,” Hart said.
After winning the second set 6-2, Bilbeisi felt confident in her chances in the tiebreaker.
“I was ready for it,” Bilbeisi said. “I knew I could win it because I had the momentum going into it as I was beating her pretty bad in the second set.”
Bilbesi won her opening match over Westbrook Christian’s Liana Shah 6-3, 6-1 and defeated Regan Humble of Mars Hill Bible 6-4, 7-5 in the semifinals.
In other HA girls results, Carryne Chancey won a first round match at No. 1 singles, but lost in the second round. Karoline Merrell (No. 2) and Lauren Baker (No. 6) won opening-round matches to reach the semifinals before losing.
Mary Parker Williams, the No. 4 player, and Libby McDonald, the No. 5 netter, both lost opening matches.
All three doubles teams also lost in the opening round. Those teams were Chancey/Merrell at No. 1, Bilbeisi/Williams at No. 2 and Baker/McDonald at No. 3.
Enterprise girls wins Sportsmanship Trophy
The Enterprise girls tennis team won the annual Sportsmanship Trophy during the Class 7A State Tournament at the Mobile Tennis Center.
As a team, Enterprise finished sixth out of nine teams with seven points.
Katie Nelson was the only singles players to win a match, taking a 6-2, 7-5 opening-round win at No. 1 singles over Fairhope’s Paige Evans. She then lost in the semifinals to Vestavia Hills’ Cindy Jiang, 6-0, 6-0.
The No. 2 doubles teams of Riley Stewart and Lola Bruce won a first round match 6-2, 6-2 over a duo from Daphne, but lost in the semifinals to Auburn High.
On the boys side, the Wildcats finished tied for seventh with four points.
Julian Gunter won an opening-round match at No. 5 singles, beating Owen Brasher of Fairhope 3-6, 6-1, 10-7 before losing in the semifinals. Kyle Stevens was the other only EHS player to win, taking a victory at No. 6 over Fairhope 5-7, 6-4, 10-7.