Taft comes back to win 5-4 over Liberty in CIF Central Section Div. IV final for first title in 42 years

The Taft High girls varsity tennis team won the school's first Division IV Section (Valley) tennis title Tuesday with a sliver-thin, 5-4 win over 16-2 Liberty of Madera Ranchos. Liberty had won the Division V title the past two years and was moved up to Division IV.

Liberty was ahead 4-2 after the singles round, forcing Taft, 23-4, to sweep all three doubles matches in order to prevail. At one point, Taft was down in all three doubles matches and the No. 3 doubles team lost the first set, 6-4.

Taft had to dig itself out of a hole after it lost both third-set tiebreakers at No. 1 singles and No. 5. Ana Estrada lost to Annie Erickson, 1-6, 6-4, 10-5. And, No. 5 Gloria Hartley lost to Cholie Doyle, 6-4, 5-7, 10-8. They were not alone. Number 2 Taylan Erro lost to Jordyn DeChamplain, 6-4, 6-2. And, No. 3 Yeraldin Barrera lost to lefty Bethany Buchnoff, 6-3, 6-1.

Taft was kept alive by No. 4 Diana Medina, who beat Jocelyn Hernandez, 6-1, 6-4, and No. 6 Lupita Lozano, who wasted little time in disposing of Katelyn Berna, 6-0, 6-1.

That set the stage for a dramatic comeback as a big contingent of Madera fans were already celebrating the seemingly insurmountable 4-2 lead. They were emboldened by the singles play of their six seniors and the history of their successful doubles teams.

Taft coach Jim Carnal and assistant coach Bill Friend put the players who were playing the best, Estrada and Medina, at No. 1 to face a talented No. 2 DeChamplain and No. 3 Buchnoff. "Ana is our top player and Diana has been extremely motivated during this playoff run," Carnal said.

The coaches put the proven team of No. 2 Erro and No. 5 Hartley against No. 1 Erickson and No. 5 Doyle. That left Taft's veteran No. 3 doubles team of senior JC Yarbrough and junior Roxi Barboza against a talented pair of sophomores, Renee Ortega and Martiza Rivera. This was the same Taft doubles team that won the fifth and deciding point against Bakersfield Christian both times during league play. Both were won in third-set tiebreakers.

In this tense, championship match, line judges were requested by players on the No. 2 and No. 3 courts to ensure that all player calls were accurate.

At No. 2 doubles, Erro and Hartley beat Erickson and Doyle, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) to make it 4-3 Madera. Taft's No. 1 doubles team won the first set 7-6 (7-3) and was leading 5-2, so the focus of the large crowd turned to the No. 3 doubles contest, which featured long rallies, aces, slams and saves that seemed impossible. Yarbrough and Barboza came back from the first-set loss to win the second set, 6-2.

The 10-point tiebreaker at No. 3 doubles went 3-3, 5-5, 6-6. Then Yarbrough slammed some overheads at net to create an 8-6 lead. Both teams traded points, with Barboza hitting a low volley down the middle. At 9-8, Liberty returned a shot short right into the sights of Yarbrough and she finished the comeback with a crosscourt winner.

With the match now tied 4-4, fans rushed to the No. 1 doubles court where Liberty had staged a comeback from being behind 5-2 to 5-4. But that was as close as they got as Estrada and Medina played error-free tennis and closed out the deciding game.

Barboza, who had cried with nervousness early in her match, now cried with joy. Taft players, coaches, parents, friends and well-wishers swarmed the winning players.

The Wildcats did a cheer for the Hawks, who received the runner-up plaque and then did one final cheer celebrating all their work that started in triple digits in July and ended on a crisp October evening. "Operation Ring Complete," they yelled as their hands met in a circle.

Carnal said the season was like a dream, beating Bakersfield Christian for the first time and the second, winning league for the first time and doing it 14-0, and now winning the first Valley tennis title. He praised the team.

"This couldn't happen to a nicer group. These girls paid their dues, they practiced hard, they were extremely coachable. They listened and incorporated the coaching into their play. They paid their dues."

Carnal has coached the boys' team for 13 years and the girls for five. Both he and coaches Bill and Linda Friend agreed that they were glad that this was the team to win the school's first Valley title.