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CovCath’s improbable doubles comeback gives Colonels first team tennis state championship

By Dan Weber

NKyTribune sports reporter

NICHOLASVILLE – They’d already lost the first set 6-2 and were down 5-1 in the second. One more game lost and it would be all she wrote.

One more lost game and Covington Catholic would still not have its first-ever state team championship and Northern Kentucky would still not have a boys’ state doubles champ since – get ready for it – 1949.

And then it happened. The CovCath team of sophomores Alex Yeager and Kalei Christensen did not lose again even to a Greenwood team led by Kentucky’s Mr. Tennis, Dylan Dethridge with his partner Gary Zheng.

Not a game. Not in the super-tiebreaker after split sets used to decide state tourney matches where the first to 10 points with a two-point edge is the winner.

CovCath’s state champion tennis team

And yes, that team was the CovCath Colonels after roaring back to win six straight games – and the second set Thursday.

And then took the tiebreaker 10-7 after jumping out to a 9-3 lead over a deflated Greenwood team – and crowd – that clearly did not know what hit it.

Not that the CovCath Colonels could tell them. They weren’t exactly sure how they pulled this one off.

Coach Al Hertsenberg said all he tried to do was re-focus their energy from negative to positive. He’s been doing this 33 years and finished runner-up three times. And has great assistants to do the hands-on work.

So when he went down on to the court, all he did “was try to shake the tree,” he said.

His job is to keep the train on the tracks. “Our guys have all the tools,” he said, “but they’re sophomores.”

CovCath grandparent and Northern Kentucky’s Mr. Tennis Kevin Molony was calling out, “There’s no clock in tennis.” Just take it a point at a time.

Whle the Colonel duo didn’t hear him over the din of the anticipatory Greenwood fans, they did agree in a weirdly optimistic way.

CovCath doubles state winners Alex Yeager and Kalei Christensen

“Time was definitely on our side,” Christensen said. It’s all they had, really.

“We slowed down out there,” he said. And then he did something else. He listened to his partner, the guy he’s been playing with since the second grade.

“Alex kept saying ‘Stay with me, stay with these returns, stay fighting’.”

And so they did. Point after point. The energy refocused, their postures changed. From back on their heels to up on their toes.

“Your energy comes from your feet,” Al tells them. And from a CovCath student group that finally had something to cheer about.

“That definitely was a factor,” Kalei said of the fan support that switched from green to blue as fast as their games did.

Now if they could just get to the tiebreaker. And as they managed to grind out one game after another, winning four straight to tie it at 5, then winning the next two for split sets, there they were.

“We love tiebreakers,” Alex said, quoting “Coach Al.”

All they needed to do was get there. “You saw us out there,” Kalei said, of their response to winning the second set. You’d have thought they had already won it.

As it turns out, they had, winning the first three tiebreaker points, then nine of the first 12 for a 9-3 lead. Just one more.

OK, it took four more to get there but after Yeager dropped down an unreturnable chop volley just across the net after Kalei mis-hit his second serve a bit, somehow, some way, the Colonels had come back.

“It wasn’t exactly how we planned it,” Kalei said. But he’ll take it.

”With a spirit that will not die,” is how the CovCath fight song opens. Never more so than in this moment at the Top Seed Tennis Club in Nicholasville.

“You couldn’t even dream of something like this,” Kalei said, “but you can hope.”

Colonels’ fans can only hope it gets better from here. All the athletes who scored points with basketball-playing singles star Brady Hussey, a junior, making it to the semis on his rehabbing ankle, will be back.

“We’re just getting started,” Coach Al said. Just another moment among many when his philosophy was on the money.

You don’t have to win all the points. “All you have to do is score the last point,” he said in this game. Not the first however many points Greenwood would have been ahead by after winning 11 of the first 14 games.

Just get to the place where you can win that last point.

Which is what the Colonels did.


Some way.

• Covington Latin’s top-seeded Sara Watanabe made it to the finals in girls’ singles Saturday before falling to Sacred Heart’s Ellie Hammond, 6-4, 6-3, as the Louisville school won its fifth straight team title.

Dan Weber is a sports reporter for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. Contact him at dweber3440@aol.com or follow him @dweber3440 on twitter.

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