MODESTO — The pressure was already mounting in a grueling match that was headed for a third set when Sierra’s Jasmine Sebastian noticed that the crowd on the other side of the fence had gotten bigger.
“I knew that a lot of the other matches were finished, and then I saw everyone coming to our court,” Sebastian said. “I was like, ‘Great, now it’s all up to me.’”
Following hard-earned victories from seniors Kaitlyn Rausa and Nadia Petrovic, it was Sebastian’s drawn-out, three-set thriller against Central Catholic’s Victoria Borba that concluded the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship in dramatic fashion Tuesday Modesto Junior College.
In the end, it was a teary-eyed Sebastian and the Timberwolves celebrating the school’s first-ever tennis title. They defeated their Valley Oak League rival, 5-4.
Central Catholic, the No. 1-seeded team and reigning champion of the tournament, twice edged Sierra by the same score during the regular season. The T’wolves ended league in a third-place tie with Oakdale and got into the postseason by coin flip. Seeded seventh, they knocked off second-seeded and previously-unbeaten Mountain House 5-4 and Florin 6-3 on their way to their second SJS final-round appearance in three years.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t expect this,” Sierra coach Ed Melfort said. “We got in on a coin flip. I’d be lying if I said I thought we’d be champions.”
Much like its opening-round upset at Mountain House, where it was down 4-2, Sierra rallied back for what Melfort called “a team win.” More on that later.
There were tense moments throughout the determining No. 5 singles match, but Sebastian was able to clutch up with all eyes on her. She fended off Borba’s late charge in the second set to even the count.
In the third, Sebastian quickly fell behind 2-0 and doubt crept in as the deficit grew, 4-1.
“I started crying because I thought it was over,” she said. “Then I heard my family and friends cheering and it’s amazing how much tennis is such a mental game. I didn’t want to let these people down, and I wanted it for the seniors.
“I just had to keep fighting and be consistent,” Sebastian added. “I had to focus, because I kept paying attention to the crowd and stuff. I just thought, you know what, it’s just me and this girl on the court.”
Sebastian chiseled away until knotting it at 4-4 and continued to scrap after Borba took the next game. Ahead 5-4, Sebastian — a doubles player for much of the season — secured the final two points to end it.
“I left Jasmine at doubles against Oakdale and that cost us, so I knew I couldn’t do that again for the playoffs,” Melfort said. “She was kind of hesitant but she did what she had to for the team and she won every match in the playoffs. She’s a fighter.”
Sierra’s experienced trio at the top of the ladder helped set the stage for the dramatic finish. Central Catholic pocketed the first four wins of the contest before No. 3 doubles partners Caitlin Morrow and Brianna Villalobos came up with a needed 6-3, 6-3 win for Sierra. It was Morrow and Villalobos who registered the clincher at Mountain House last week.
From there, it was up to the four remaining singles matches.
Melanie Nguyen battled through an illness for a second straight match but pulled through for a 6-1, 6-2 win over Isabella Naraghi at No. 3 singles.
Rausa and Petrovic then tallied wins over opponents they had never previously beaten.
“That flipped it,” Melfort said. “We lost where we thought we could win at doubles. We had two first-time wins and that’s what propelled us.”
First it was No. 2 Petrovic, who swept Katherine Juarez, 6-2, 6-4. Then Rausa held off Colleen Ballatore 7-6 (3), 7-6 (3) in a showdown between the last two VOL singles champions.
“I was just so ecstatic,” Rausa said. “It was bittersweet because she’s also a really good friend of mine, but the fact that I was able to finally beat her in my final (match) was gratifying.”
Rausa ended her four-year career by accomplishing all of her goals, winning a second individual league title, making it to the SJS Division II Individual Tournament’s semifinals for the first time and going away with the ultimate team prize.
“It has been hectic, but I am so grateful and proud,” Rausa said.
Central Catholic’s Anne Dunn won at No. 4 singles 6-3, 6-3 over Livleen Kaler, while Joecellia Roberts downed Varshaa Bala 6-0, 6-0 at No. 6.
At No. 1 doubles, Isabella Khacho and Mia Miligi defeated Sierra’s Sydney Trump and Bianca Dungca 6-1, 6-0. Maria Freitas and Caden Wilson took the second doubles match 6-3, 6-0 against Kendall Sellers and Vicotria Zellners to give the Raiders their early 4-0 lead.
“I think that (Mountain House) match really prepared us for this,” Melfort said, also giving a nod to the competitive VOL headed by Manteca which claimed its third Division III title in four years on Tuesday.
“That was a really intense atmosphere, so when we got to the next match it wasn’t so tough. But we know that Central is always going to be tough. They got us the last two times and it went down to the wire every time. The third time was the charm for us.”