May 29—FORT WAYNE — Northridge girls tennis accomplished many things in the 2021 season. They were the outright Northern Lakes Conference champions, won sectional and regional titles for the first time since 2013 and carried an undefeated record heading into Saturday’s semistate matchup with No. 6 Homestead.
Unfortunately for the 16th-ranked Raiders, that’s where the season would end. The Spartans would edge Northridge, 3-2, on a windy day at Homestead High School to advance to the state quarterfinals. The Raiders’ season ends with a 16-1 record.
After the match, Northridge coach Austin Christner gathered his players for one final team huddle.
“The biggest thing for me — we have a lot of seniors, and they’re getting ready to move on to the next aspect of life,” Christner said. “None of them are going to play college tennis, so I just wanted to relay the message that all that hard work they’ve put in through tennis, to see that hard work get paid off throughout the year and for them to achieve all of these goals — take that with life. If you want something, work at it and achieve it.
“That was just the message for the seniors heading off. And, for the two underclassmen coming back: take a few days off, and then get ready for next year because this was a fun season, for sure.”
The deciding match for Homestead came at the No. 1 doubles position. The Northridge duo of seniors Peyton Kieper and Brynne Gayler gave all they could against the stout Spartan pairing of Morgan Render and Madison Zitlaw, battling out of an 0-3 hole in the first set to pull within 4-5. In the next game, though, Render and Zitlaw broke Northridge’s serve to win the set, 6-4.
The second set was a little more dominant from Homestead. Although there were many games that reached deuce point, Render and Zitlaw found the energy when they needed to win those points and the second set, 6-2. It secured the team win for Homestead, who had won at No. 3 singles and No. 2 doubles already at that point.
“I thought (Kieper and Gayler) came out ready to play,” Christner said. “I think we were a little tight; we didn’t play our best match, but we fought, and I was really happy and proud of the girls for just coming out and playing against a doubles team that’s probably one of the best in the state. … They’re a heck of a team, and I was just happy with how Brynne and Peyton fought for every point.”
With the match in doubt, all eyes turned to the No. 2 singles match still ongoing. There, Raider sophomore Lilah Dean would wrap up a 6-4, 6-3 win to result in the final team score. Although the team match had already been decided, there was no talk of that while Dean was playing.
“You play to win,” Christner said. “It doesn’t matter what the match score is — Lilah’s playing to win. She’s a competitor, and she wants to win. It’s a pretty easy conversation with Lilah because she’s a competitive person.”
The other victory for Northridge came at No. 1 singles, as senior Riley Wheatley was a 6-4, 6-1 winner in what ended up being the final match of her high school career.
“Was happy to see (Dean) and Riley pull those out,” Christner said. “They’re definitely the strengths of our team, and they showed it (Saturday). Came out on the semistate level, and to be able to win in straight sets is a great accomplishment for both of them.”
Of the seven players that played for Northridge Saturday, five are graduating: Wheatley, No. 3 singles Maia Schmucker, Gayler, Kieper and No. 2 doubles player Taylin Cress. That leaves Dean and the other No. 2 doubles player, junior Morgan Mack, returning next season.
“It was a fun ride,” said Christner of the 2021 season. “The girls worked really hard. They were very coachable, and I think that’s the takeaway for me: when you get the right group of kids who are coachable and willing to put in the work, then you can see them improve so much throughout the year. And, that’s just fun. When you’re part of a winning team that’s improving every match and picking up on little pointers here and then continuing to add to that — that’s a fun group to be a part of.”
This was just the first season for Christner leading the Raider program, who’s still only 25 years old. The young head coach hopes this year’s success can be used to build the program for years to come.
“It was a good first year,” Christner said. “We’re hoping to continue to make the program to the point where it’s a yearly occurrence to get here.”
Northridge vs. Homestead Girls Tennis Semistate — individual match results
No. 1 singles: Riley Wheatley (N) def. Olivia Creech (H), 6-4, 6-1
No. 2 singles: Lilah Dean (N) def. Jenna Lewis (H), 6-4, 6-3
No. 3 singles: Ellie Cook (H) def. Maia Schmucker (N), 6-0, 6-2
No. 1 doubles: Morgan Render/Madison Zitlaw (H) def. Peyton Kieper/Brynne Gayler (N), 6-4, 6-2
No. 2 doubles: Anna Topmiller/Rhegan Zitlaw (H) def. Morgan Mack/Taylin Cress (N), 6-1, 6-2