Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
DENVER — Lily Chitambar knew what it meant to dawn the heart of a champion.
Throughout her tantalizing, exhausting No. 1 singles state title match in the Class 5A state tennis tournament at Gates Tennis Center on Saturday, the Boulder High junior never lost her fire. Not when Smoky Hill’s Valerie Negin erased a 5-0 deficit to take the first set, 7-6. Not when Negin started to fight back even harder in the third set.
Chitambar held true to her game through a two-and-a-half-hour marathon and sweltering heat. The smile that broke out when Negin hit the ball into the net one last time made the sweat and frustration all worth it.
“It feels great. I honestly didn’t expect it, so I’m really happy,” Chitambar said. “She’s really good, so I was just really nervous. … I haven’t really taken it in yet.”
En route to victory, Chitambar stole the second set 6-0 and went up 5-1 in the third before, once again, Negin went on a dangerous run. Smoky Hill’s 1 singles 2019 champion won three games straight to close the gap back to just one game.
That was close enough for Chitambar’s liking. She put her away in the very next game.
“I was pretty in shock that she came back from 5-0. It took me a couple points to get over it, and then I just tried to be tough and get right back in it and go one point at a time,” she said. “I just tried not to think too much about anything, just focus on every ball.”
Now, Chitambar sits alone in BHS history as its only top singles tennis champion.
Not to be outdone Saturday, Fairview laid claim to yet another team trophy under coach Susan Stensrud.
For a long time, Fairview and Cherry Creek girls tennis have vied for glory each season at state. This year, the Knights sent every single line (singles and doubles) to Gates and five lines made it all the way to their respective title matches.
In the end, Cherry Creek’s collective aces beat them out, but five out of seven runner-up spots is certainly nothing to balk at.
“It means a lot that the team has been able to come to this point, especially coming from the 2019 season where not many lines made it to the finals,” No. 3 doubles player Mia Grayson said. “Obviously, Creek is just such a strong team. It just shows a lot of strength and improvement that our team was able to make it far. I’m really just so proud of everyone.”
Fairview earned second place as a team, and while the Knights ultimately couldn’t overcome Goliath this go-round, they’ll have plenty of David-like talent to boost them in the state tournament for years to come.
Take freshman phenom Quinn Bernthal for example. Playing No. 3 singles, she went into battle with the Bruins’ Anika Sharma and dropped the first set before rallying for a set win in a 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 marathon. Some day, those ladies will undoubtedly see each other again in the 1 singles finals.
“That was the first time that I had played in front of that many people,” Bernthal said. “I think I did a decent job trying to manage my nerves, so that’s a plus from the match. The first time, it’s always a learning experience, so it’s awesome to be here and I’m happy that I’m on such a great team.”
Sophomores Elizabeth Roth and Virginia Gomulka (1 doubles) also graced the state stage for the first time, but it won’t be the last. The experience they gained along the way will serve them well in the future.
“I’m really proud of us,” Elizabeth Roth said. “Never had a full season, so it’s pretty much like freshmen walking in and playing 1 doubles. I think we put up a good fight and it was just an exhausting day, but I’m proud of how we played.”
They played a tougher match against the Bruins, losing 6-3, 6-1. But don’t count these ladies out for 2022.
“They have a lot more experience than us,” Gomulka said. “We played really well, we gave it our all. Next year, I think we’re going to win it.”
Of all of Fairview’s many finalists, just one senior took the court for the Knights. Natalie Stone (2 singles) faced an ultra-difficult opponent in Lorena Cedeno (CCHS). She dropped the first set, but wouldn’t let that stop her from roaring back in the next frame.
“I was down 4-2 and I just kind of was telling myself that it’s not about me, it’s about more than me. It’s about the team,” she said.
That’s when she went into overdrive to bring herself back into contention, taking it one point at a time. She claimed set two, but ultimately lost steam in the final set in a 6-2, 4-6, 6-0 tussle.
The same theme held true for Fairview’s 2 doubles team. Freshmen Jane Roth and Maya Brakhage found themselves playing from behind after losing the first set. They forced a third set, however, before succumbing to Cherry Creek’s team, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
“I think it was really good, especially playing Creek because they have a huge crowd and lots of cheering, and it was really tough to ignore sometimes, but you just had to play through it and fight through it,” Jane Roth said.
“Being freshmen, it’s kind of great,” Brakhage added. “We weren’t really expecting second in the state, but it’s definitely a win.”
That, of course, holds true for the grand majority of the Knights roster, as all but one state finalist will be coming back next year, hungry for more. Grayson and Emily Hao (3 doubles) ultimately fell to Cherry Creek by a 6-2, 6-2 final, but they’ll have one more year to prove just how ferocious they are on the court.
“We’ve never faced competition like this before, so I’m proud of us for how far we’ve come,” Hao said. “It was a blast playing against someone of such a high level.”