ORONO — Like the approaching rain clouds, the George Stevens Academy boys’ tennis team’s recent loss to the Orono Red Riots loomed during Tuesday morning’s Class C Northern Maine championship at the University of Maine.
After falling to second-ranked Orono 3-1 in their last match of the regular season, the No. 1 GSA Eagles beat the Red Riots — as well as the forecasted storm — 4-1 for their seventh straight regional title.
GSA’s first-year coach Mark Ensworth said his team’s strategy going into the championship was to play with consistency.
“They’re a real tough team,” Ensworth said of Orono. “We knew it was going to be a fight from start to finish.”
Unlike in the teams’ May 25 matchup — which was cut short because of inclement weather — the Eagles (13-2) didn’t give their new coach much to sweat. Ben Politte and Beowulf Urban both rectified their losses to Orono (11-4) to give GSA an early 2-0 lead.
Politte, GSA’s No. 3 singles player, faced Orono’s Ben Blood twice throughout the regular season and lost both times. But on Tuesday, Politte had no trouble beating Blood 6-0, 6-2 in straight sets to put the Eagles on the board.
“I think what went differently is that I was more confident in my game,” said Politte, a junior. “Having lost to him was definitely a drive.”
Urban — GSA’s No. 2 singles’ player — cushioned the Eagles’ lead, defeating Sam Sheppard 6-1, 6-0.
Christian Jones and Kent Fang clinched the title for GSA at second doubles after pulling away in the third set to beat Thor Van Walsum and Joe Sheppard 6-0, 5-7, 6-2.
GSA already led 3-0 when Aidan Byrne and Leif Lyon-Miller edged Alex Fergusson and Brandon Hines 6-4, 5-7, 6-2 at first doubles for the Eagles’ fourth straight victory.
At first singles, Orono senior Takumi Hoshima handed GSA its only loss, defeating Matt Stephens 6-2, 6-1. The rain held off until the end of their match.
GSA has won 13 of the last 15 regional championships. Ensworth attributes the program’s strength to good coaching and year-round practice, which many of the players access through using the indoor courts in Sedgwick.
“You kind of develop a culture for it,” Ensworth said. “The kids come in with a positive outlook. It has just grown in the area.”
When asked how it felt to win a regional championship his first year coaching, Ensworth didn’t hesitate.
“Relieved,” the 29-year-old said. “Following up Larry Gray — it’s big shoes to fill.”
Ensworth, a GSA grad, played tennis for Gray in high school. Gray helped start GSA’s tennis program in 1996. He coached the team to 12 regional titles and one state championship before relinquishing the throne after last season to fill his new role as GSA’s athletics director.
Though the Eagles remained on top of their class throughout the season, they didn’t get to the Northern Maine championship untested. Fifth-ranked Fort Kent (10-5) — an unfamiliar opponent — threatened to end GSA’s season on Saturday in the semifinals. The Eagles managed to pull out a 3-2 win.
“It was stressful to the finish,” Ensworth said. “At least with Orono, we knew how we matched up. With Fort Kent, we didn’t know what they looked like until they stepped off the bus.”
The Eagles initially appeared in good shape, with Jones and Fang opening the day with a win over Fort Kent’s Charles Parham and Johnny Labbe 6-4, 6-2.
Politte also cruised to a 6-0 victory in his first set over Fort Kent’s David Roy before nearly dropping the second one. Politte put the match away 6-0, 7-6 (7-5), scoring the winning point after a long rally on a crosscourt shot. “That’s too good,” one of the Fort Kent coaches murmured while watching Roy dive for the ball, which Politte placed just beyond his reach.
“That was a little scary,” Politte said of the match. “It’s all about finding out what shots work for you and using that to improve your game.”
Fort Kent’s Micah Charette and Niko Nevanja defeated Byrne and Lyon-Miller 6-1, 6-2 to cut GSA’s lead to 2-1 before Ryan Chasse beat Stephens 6-0, 6-1 to tie the score.
“I was stressed,” Ensworth said, smiling. “Tennis is such a stressful sport.”
It got a little more stressful for Ensworth when Urban and Fort Kent’s Rowan Stamp entered a third set for a spot in the regional championship. Urban won 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 to keep the Eagles’ season alive.
“I think coming off a positive experience like that helped us prepare for today,” Ensworth said Tuesday. “We came ready to play.”
GSA will play the winner of Thursday’s Southern Maine championship between Hall-Dale and Waynflete for the Class C state title on Saturday at Lewiston High School. The Eagles haven’t won a state title since 2004.
GSA has lost to Waynflete in the state championship for the past six years, and Waynflete has won 10 of the last 11 state titles.
But for the first time all season, the pressure won’t be on the Eagles.
“We just can’t beat ourselves,” Ensworth said. “We’ll make them have to win the points.”