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Section title eludes Manteca
Ceres clinches it with third set in No. 1 doubles match
TEN--SJS D3 Final pic 1a
Edvin Pepic lifts up No. 2 doubles teammate Dhillon Patel after they tied up the overall team match at 4-all during Wednesdays Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final held at Ceres. - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO/ The Bulletin

CERES — A chance at making history turned into heartbreak for the Manteca High boys tennis team in the first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section Division III team final.

It came down to the third and final set of the No. 1 doubles match pitting Ceres’ experienced tandem of Manny Jimenez and Dennis Phomalinh and Manteca’s all-sophomore pair of Yok Ehy Ma and Si Hao Tang. Jimenez and Phomalinh came back from a one-set deficit and won the final two games to clinch the Bulldogs’ dramatic 5-4 victory. They defeated Ma and Tang 5-7, 6-4, 6-3.

It’s the first section championship for the Bulldogs, who end the season with a perfect 27-0 record. Manteca (19-4) dropped to 0-2 in section finals and made its first appearance since 1988.

“We knew going into the match it was going to be 5-4,” Manteca coach Frank Fontana said. “We were either going to win or lose close and today we just didn’t win that third and deciding set.

“I wasn’t nervous that it came down to two of our sophomores against two seniors, that was irrelevant to me. We were right there and it just didn’t happen for us on those key points.”

Manteca’s depth helped give it a shot at the end. Ceres sophomore Nolan McCaig, who is in the SJS Division II Individual Tournament semifinal for a second straight year, swept Yok Jing Ma 6-1, 6-0, while senior standout Julio Ochoa dispatched Mike Lopez 6-2, 6-3 at No. 1 and 2 singles.

The Buffaloes got a key point early on from No. 6 Spencer Jackson, who battled through a blister in his right hand to topple Bruno de la Torre, 6-3, 6-3. Ceres had won three of the first four matches that ended, including a 6-4, 6-0 victory for Rene Cortes over Nolan Osborn at No. 4 singles.

“For the first couple of games I was nervous and it made me mess up, but I heard the support from my team and from my dad and that helped me keep going and stay positive,” Jackson said. “I listened to what coach Fontana was telling me to do and it worked.”

The most competitive singles match was between Manteca No. 3 Gino Mercado and Ceres’ Chase Harden, who had a hard-earned 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 win that put the Bulldogs ahead 4-1 and in the driver’s seat.

“In reality, I thought we were in way more matches than I thought we were going to be,” Fontana said. “The effort that Mike put in, yeah he didn’t win but he played a top kid. I thought he played him tough. Gino played awesome and made the whole match competitive. I can’t be more proud of the effort they put in. You don’t always win every one.”

Manteca nearly ran the table from that point forward. No. 5 Kyle Thornburg knocked off Jose Ortega 6-2, 6-3 for a Manteca point, and the No. 3 doubles team of Yayha Shabbar and Matt Pabla dominated, 6-3, 6-1.

Minutes later the team competition was tied at 4-all, as Edvin Pepic and Dhillon Patel held off Jorge Ruiz and Julian Rodriguez 6-2, 7-5 in the heated No. 2 doubles matchup.

“We lost our last match pretty bad, so we told each other we’re not going to lose in the section finals,” Pepic said. “There was a lot of emotion. We just gave it our all.”

Then it was all eyes on the No. 1 doubles court.

“We all played hard and did mostly everything right,” said Pepic, a junior. “It just came down to a couple of points in the end. We’re going to work harder. This will just motivate us to get better.”

Manteca is losing six seniors to graduation, including five of its six singles players. Yok Jing Ma and Lopez’s season isn’t over just yet. Next Tuesday they’ll compete in the semifinal round of the SJS Division II doubles tournament, which was originally postponed last week due to rain. With the section anticipating more rain today, the second day of the tournament was moved again.

“I think the couple of days off will be good to refocus for that,” Fontana said. “They had tough matches today and having to get up at 7 a.m. tomorrow would be hard for them. I’ve known them since they were 8 years old so it will be hard to see them go.

“We’re going to lose a lot, but the planning is in process already,” he added. “I’m already thinking about next year. I’m going to keep working until one day it happens. We’re sticking with it. One match isn’t the end of the world for us.”