The Taft High varsity girls’ tennis team squeaked past the Independence Falcons by the narrowest of margins, 5-4, Wednesday, to advance to the Valley semifinals at No. 2 seed Liberty Madera Ranchos at noon Wednesday, Nov. 6.
Last year, No. 1 Taft beat No. 2 Liberty Madera Ranchos in the Valley finals for the Wildcats’ first Valley tennis championship.
On Wednesday, the quarterfinal match between Taft, the No. 3 seed, and Independence, the No. 6 seed, was far closer than even the 5-4 score indicated.
Of the more than 1,000 points played, if two balls had bounced the other way, the score would have been flip-flopped and the Falcons would have been the team heading north next week. The difference in the match was that Taft won both third-set tiebreakers.
When the four-hour nail-biter was over, girls on both teams were crying. Wildcats players and coaches flooded the court to hug the doubles team of Lupita Lozano and Karina Amaya who provided the winning points.
“Independence’s top three players were better than our top three in those spots so we were down 0-3 right off the bat,” Taft coach Jim Carnal said. “Their No. 1, sophomore Paige Darstein, is in the top handful of female high school tennis players in Kern County.”
Darstein beat Taylan Erro, 6-0, 6-1. Darstein’s sister, junior Abby Darstein, beat Lupita Lozano, 6-4, 6-2. And, Jacklyn Blankenship beat Haven Cook, 6-2, 6-1.
To have any chance of winning, Taft had to win the bottom three singles matches. At No. 5, Taft senior Roxi Barboza beat sophomore Christina Pipkin, 6-3, 6-1. In a hard-fought battle at No. 6, Taft’s Gloria Okafor got by Chloe Moreno, 7-6 (8-6), 6-3.
Then it all came down to Taft’s Jen Rivera at No. 4 playing Emily Adams in a match that had more twists than a Hitchcock movie. Rivera won the first set, 7-5, lost the second, 6-7 (4-7), but persevered against the sophomore who gets lessons from Mark Fredriksz at the Bakersfield Racquet Club.
Mixing up a variety of shots, Rivera finally outplayed the technically better player in the third set, 10-5.
With the match tied at 3-3, both teams had to win two of the three doubles matches to advance to the final four in Valley.
“If the Independence coach had split the Darstein sisters, I’m sure they would have won,” Carnal said. “But a lot of coaches are creatures of habit and he kept the sisters together at No. 1 doubles as he has all year. That’s what we were counting on.”
The Darsteins beat Cook and Barboza, 6-2, 6-0. Taft put No. 1 Erro with No. 7 Griselda Ramos against No. 3 Blankenship and No. 5 Julia Lunsford and the match was never in doubt with Taft winning 6-1, 6-3.
Page 2 of 2 - All the drama was on the No. 3 doubles court where Taft’s No. 2 Lozano and No. 8 Karina Amaya faced No. 6 Pipkin and No. 8 Shelley Ho.
Taft got off to a rocky start, dropping the first three games and then the first set, 6-3. But the Taft coaches, Carnal and Bill and Linda Friend, made some adjustments in where the players were playing on the court.
Taft ran the table in the second set, 6-0, to knot the match. With the match score, 4-4, everything came down to which doubles team could win 10 points first. All eyes were on the No. 3 doubles court. Taft got behind, 0-3, then 3-6, before settling down and winning 10-8. The home stands and Taft players erupted. Principal Bernie Valenzuela stayed for the entire match and congratulated the players.
“The returning varsity players who won the school’s first Valley championship last year, Taylan, Lupita and Roxi, always do great. But Jen at No. 4 and Karina at No. 8 really rose the occasion and sealed the win,” Carnal praised.
Taft improved to 17-8 overall and Independence, which plays in the power league with Stockdale, Liberty, Bakersfield, Centennial and Frontier, finished 11-11.