Frosh. Sammy Ockerland was sitting in her bedroom when her phone went off. Ockerland grabbed it off her bedside table and saw “iMessage: Pete Schwallier.” She opened her phone up and read the text message in disbelief. No. 3 Singles player Frosh. Tyliea Bethke had gotten a concussion and would be unable to compete in Thursday’s Regional Tournament. Ockerland, a Junior Varsity player, would have to play No. 3 Singles at the Varsity tennis Regional Tournament. She didn’t know if she should be nervous or excited: “The moment I found out I would be playing I felt mixed emotions. I was really excited to be playing and nervous at the same time, but I was also really sad for Ty because of her concussion,” Ockerland said.
Two days later, Ockerland stepped onto the courts at Holland Christian High School. She had warmed up and eaten breakfast with the team, and she was ready to play. Her first match was against Caledonia, and the team needed her to win: “The day of the tournament I was VERY nervous. I didn’t even think I stood a chance of winning the first match,” Ockerland said. Without Tyliea, West Ottawa coaches and players were having doubts that WO could make it to the State finals. A win from Ockerland would help the team immensely.
It was windy out: so windy, in fact, that Ockerland’s visor was blown off her head a couple games into the match. She took a deep breath, threw the ball up, and hit her first serve of the Regional Tournament. On the sidelines, teammates Sr. Emily VanDyke, Jr. Madison Wollenzier, Soph. Katie Frauenheim, Sr. Megan Zimmer, and Jr. Caroline Sisson sat anxiously alongside Coaches Pete Schwallier and Mark Doren. They watched in wonder as Ockerland won game after game to defeat her opponent 7-5, 7-5: “It was so cool,” Zimmer said, “We knew she could do it, but to see her actually do it was amazing. We really needed her to win that match and she did it.” Ockerland was equally surprised and excited by her performance: “During the match, I realized that I did have a chance of winning against the girl when I won the first set. My confidence kicked in, and I won the second set as well,” Ockerland said.
News of Ockerland’s win quickly traveled to the other site: Holland High School. No. 3 singles and doubles and No. 4 singles and doubles were playing at Holland Christian High School and No. 1 singles and doubles and No. 2 singles and doubles were playing at HHS. Ockerland was the only WO player to not have a bye the first round, so all of the players were anxious to see how she did. “It was nerve racking. We knew that getting those couple of points could make or break our chances to make state this year,” Soph. Kacey Westenbroek said.
All of the WO flights went on to win their first matches handily. In the second round, No. 1 singles, Soph. Chloe Karp, fell to East Kentwood, No. 2 singles, Soph. Kayla Lebster, fell to Hudsonville, No. 3 singles, Ockerland, fell to Rockford, and No.1 doubles, Jr. Alex Coy and Soph. Jolene Soriano, fell to Caledonia.
A mutual feeling throughout the day was that not everyone was playing their best: “We played fine, but we definitely could have done better. We shouldn’t have lost that match, but it’s fine because we made it to State,” Soriano said.
In order to make it to the State finals, the Panthers would have to either get 18 points or place second at the Regional Tournament. Players needed to react to Bethke’s inability to play in the best possible way in order for them to be successful. The final points to go to the State finals came when WO No. 4 doubles defeated Rockford in three sets: 5-7, 6-4, 6-3.
The team celebrated its milestone by winning important finals matches: Westenbroek and Mitchell defeated Rockford, and VanDyke and Wollenzier defeated Rockford. Sisson and Zimmer fell to Hudsonville and finished runner up, and Frauenheim fell in the finals to Rockford.
The Panthers fought long and hard to earn their trip to the State finals. After 12 hours of tennis, the team finished second behind Rockford. They went home with smiles on their faces and sunburns just about everywhere else.
The State finals are on Friday in Midland.