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Lions can't take down powerful Walton

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Peachtree Ridge's Jessica Northcutt reacts during her match against Walton's Emily Zabor during the state quarterfinals on Thursday. Peachtree Ridge lost to Walton 3-1.

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Peachtree Ridge's Jessica Northcutt reacts during her match against Walton's Emily Zabor during the state quarterfinals on Thursday. Peachtree Ridge lost to Walton 3-1.

SUWANEE — There was a moment.

Mary Jeremiah had just dispatched Maxie Weinberg in straight sets when freshman Jena Kelly fought back to force a third set and Jessica Northcutt was ripping shot after shot down the line.

It felt like Walton’s staggering 143-match winning streak was in jeopardy. Genuine jeopardy.

The energy was palpable. The sizable and boisterous Peachtree Ridge student section — especially several speedo-clad boys painted blue — reached a fever pitch.

“Ridge! Ridge! Ridge!” vibrated across the courts.

Then Emily Zabor seized control against Northcutt in the No. 1 singles match and Kelly’s legs began to cramp.

Zabor rallied to win the second set in a tie-breaker, while Stephanie Falcon, battling Kelly in the No. 3 singles match, grabbed a big lead in the third set.

The juggernaut that is Walton girls tennis came back from the precipice and beat Peachtree Ridge 3-1 in the Class AAAAA quarterfinals for the second straight year Thursday.

Walton pushed its already record-setting run to 144 matches and is on track for an eighth straight state championship.

“I thought it was (going to happen), too,” Lions’ head coach Chrissie Bolt said. “And then the momentum just switched.

“Jena got cramps in both her legs. It was everything she could do just to last out the match there. And Emily is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever seen. She never gives up.”

Peachtree Ridge, with four players ranked among the state’s best by the USTA, was once again expected to be the Raiders’ biggest test. And perhaps their historic undoing.

The Lions gave a full effort, but a loss at No. 1 doubles sealed their fate.

Walton rushed onto the court, a senior-laden group that owns the longest streak of success in any sport in Georgia’s history.

“It’s amazing,” Raiders coach Roberta Manheim said. “This is beyond high school tennis. It’s something you would see at a tournament. All season we said this was going to be the match.

“We knew what we were going to face here today.”

Jeremiah, a senior ranked third among the state’s 18- year-olds, was the first one done. She won 6-1, 6-1 over Weinberg at the No. 2 spot.

“It was a good match,” Jeremiah said. “I played really well. I was taking advantage of a lot of her short balls.”

But once the match was over, she had to sit and watch like everyone else.

“It was kind of nerve-racking because I thought for a minute there we had it,” said Jeremiah, who is headed to Oklahoma State in the fall.

On the court next to her, Northcutt and Zabor were locked in a see-saw battle. The ebb and flow was emphasized by the reaction of the crowd, Peachtree Ridge’s students constantly exhorting all three singles players in turn.

Each roar after a point was won echoed all the way up the hill to the main school buildings.

“I think it helped a lot,” Jeremiah said of the vocal support. “I was laughing so it kept me really relaxed.”

But Northcutt, who earned the Lions’ lone point last season against Walton, wasn’t playing her best tennis and Zabor took advantage.

“She just thrives on (the pressure),” Bolt said. “You’ve got to play perfect. Jess was at one point.”

Northcutt was up 5-4 and 6-5 in the second set before Zabor got it to a tiebreak. The Alabama-bound senior had little trouble in the tie-breaker and won 6-0, 7-6 to give Walton its first point. Zabor leaped high and punched a fist into the air.

Falcon followed that with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 win over the laboring Kelly and all eyes turned to the No. 1 doubles match.

But freshman Ali Mills and sophomore Abby Owens, both ranked by the USTA in their age groups, fell 6-4, 6-2.

“I couldn’t ask for a better team or better girls,” Bolt said. “They give me everything they can. They’re awesome tennis players, but they’re better people. Which makes it even harder (to have the season end).

“(Walton) 100 percent deserved it. They fought. They never gave up even when they were down.”

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