BLOOMINGTON — Advancing all nine entries into the title matches proved a winning formula for the Normal Community High School girls tennis team, which dominated the Big 12 Conference Tournament by amassing 93 points on Saturday.
The Iron won six titles while outdistancing runner-up Champaign Central by 35 points in the 11-team field. Normal West took fourth (60) and Bloomington seventh (39).
"This is the best team I've ever had by far," said NCHS coach Roger Juers. "We're just really deep."
One indicator of that depth was the Iron's No. 7 and 8 singles players, Felicia Jia and Ashton Barber, teaming to win Friday's No. 3 doubles title, 6-4, 6-0, over Normal West’s Natalie Clark and Ariel Miller.
"I'm glad I came back to coach," quipped Juers, in his first year back with NCHS after a 16-year hiatus from coaching the Iron between 1996 and 2000. "I picked a good year."
Iron players picking up first-place medals included Kavya Sudhir, Ashiwarya Shekara, Madison Vail and Grace Walls at No. 3, 4, 5 and 6 singles, respectively. NCHS runners-up were Katie Toohill and Olivia Kraft at No. 1 and 2 singles.
The No. 3-seeded Toohill, a three-time state qualifier, upset No. 2 seed Lauren Ellis of Danville in the semifinals before falling to Champaign Centennial's Victoria Gonzalez in the final, 6-1, 6-1.
"I didn't think we'd be quite as good as we are," said Toohill looking back to the first day of practice. "I knew we had a good chance (to win conference)."
Toohill and Kraft lost to Gonzalez and Madison Scaggs, 6-2, 6-1, in the No. 1 doubles final on Friday. They could meet again in next weekend's Champaign Centennial Class AA Sectional. Scaggs also got the best of Kraft, 6-2, 6-2, in the No. 2 singles final.
"I think she just out rallied me," Kraft said. "It's always a good match. It's always a fun match. She won some key points that I didn't pull off."
On Friday night, Sudhir and Walls won the No. 2 doubles title over Peoria Notre Dame’s Lizzie McClure and Sydnee O’Donnell, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4.
"It's been a tough two days," Sudhir said. "We fought for every point. I thought we were a good team, but I didn't think we'd come this far. It's kind of amazing what we've done all year."
Sudhir won her singles title, 6-1, 6-4, over Urbana's Erin Wright. Shekara needed 2½ hours to defend her No. 4 singles crown, 5-7, 6-4, 10-7, over Champaign Central's Ginger Tufte.
"I had to remain calm and focused in order to win this and that's what I did," Shekara said. "I went for shots when I could."
Vail won the No. 5 singles crown, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, over Champaign Central's Allie Pelafos.
"The first set, I kind of got a bad attitude and I was hitting a lot of mistakes," Vail said. "The second set, I didn't hit as many mistakes and then the third set I was just going for it more, trying to win points."
Walls won the No. 6 final, 6-0, 6-2, over Champaign Central's Diana Golmeeva.
In the third-place match at No. 1 doubles, Leah Sebade and Emma Boitnott of Normal West won, 6-7 (2), 6-1, 6-2, over Danville’s Ellis and Emma Towne.
Boitnott also finished fourth at No. 3 singles while teammate Ariel Miller was third at No. 2, Leah Grehan third at No. 5, Natalie Clark fourth at No. 4 and Nicole Crawley fourth at No. 6.
"I think this is by far the most important tournament, the one I like the team to get up for," said Wildcats coach Steve Wulfers, who was pleased to finish fourth. "Sectional is not a good barometer for your team. This measures your team."
The top finisher for BHS was Miranda McCubbins, who finished third at No. 6 singles with a 6-0, 6-1 win over West's Crawley.
"We finished ninth here last year so (seventh) is definitely an improvement," said BHS coach Meg Rozboril, whose team heads next to the Morton Class A Sectional. "If we can keep building, that's our primary goal."