FRASER — Do you play well with pressure or without it?
That’s what Utica coach Rick Farr was forced to ask Mario Russo, Utica’s No.1 singles player, after Utica’s doubles teams were just swept by Fraser and the MAC Blue division title now came down to Russo’s final set with Fraser’s Ryan Papiernik.
Utica had quickly taken three singles matches to start the dual, but momentum turned Fraser’s way in doubles to set the stage for Russo and Papiernik to decide who would be division champions.
Fraser, which had a 5-0-1 record coming into the dual, had to take five matches from Utica to take the crown, while the 6-0 Chieftains only required a tie.
Playing injured, Russo served underhanded for every point in the match after the first game. After losing the first set on a tiebreak, Russo came back to take the second set 6-3. However, while he was coming back, Fraser’s doubles teams were doing the same.
Fraser took straight set wins in No. 1 and No. 4 doubles, and its No. 2 and No. 3 teams each rallied from a one set deficit to win their matches. That’s when Farr rallied Russo to deliver the message.
Russo embraced the message and the pressure.
The junior took the final set 7-5 to seal the division title for Utica.
“I just thought, ‘It’s game time. I have to do this. I can’t back down now. Every point, every ball.’ That’s what I told the team before the match,” Russo said.
Farr praised Russo’s efforts under such high-pressure circumstances while playing injured.
“His shoulder was injured; he couldn’t serve overhand. He’s had a couple of injuries, his wrist and shoulder, but he works at overcoming them. He still practices hard, but we talk about taking it easy on your injuries — don’t accentuate a problem — and he’s trying to do the best he can at a difficult position at No. 1 singles,” Farr said.
The match between Russo and Papiernik was indicative of the back-and-forth nature of the dual.
Utica raced out to a 3-0 lead thanks to straight set wins by Kamenja Trajkovic, Matt Sabol and David Nikonowicz. Shortly afterward, Fraser claimed victories in two doubles matches. The No. 1 doubles team of Derek Loewen and Adam Culver won in straight sets, and then Eric Clark and Marco Del took the No. 4 doubles match 6-4, 6-2.
Then the fun started.
At No. 2 and No. 3 doubles, Utica took the first sets convincingly, but Fraser came back to force thirds in each match. Fraser’s Jordan Bell and Alex Radwick took the final set in No. 3 doubles 6-2 to tie the dual overall at three.
The final two sets at No. 2 doubles between Fraser’s Sam Goethals and Mike Rogers against Utica’s Trevor Macks and Keeshev Seetharaman were two of the most tightly contested sets of the day. After losing the first set 1-6, Goethals and Rogers rallied to stay alive with a 7-5 victory in the second. The third set came down to a tiebreak, with Goethals and Rogers winning it 8-6.
“We fought — we struggled a lot. Maybe we were a little too amped up, but once we found our groove, we started playing again, and our doubles gave us a ton of energy today,” Fraser coach Greg Dalida said.
Despite the loss, the future is bright for Fraser. Not only did the Ramblers get another shot at Utica (in the divisional tournament Oct. 1, after press time), but with six freshmen playing key roles on varsity, Fraser could be a competitor for the next few division titles.
“Our freshmen are great. They just came in, and with very little experience to do what they’re doing every day, you see them get better. They try something new and try to make it work and add it in, and one thing they all do is dig deep. They play together and love each other,” Dalida said.
For now, thanks to the efforts of its singles players and a clutch performance by Russo, the MAC Blue crown belongs to Utica, but Farr knows that Fraser will be looking for redemption down the road.
“I’m looking forward to Fraser again; that will be great. And I’m sure they’re looking forward to us again in the tournament,” Farr said.