You couldn't have asked for much more in a high school tennis match than the one played Monday afternoon at the Leopold Center.
Altoona edged Hollidaysburg, 3-2, in a District 6 Class AAA team semifinal that featured three three-set matches and came down to a showdown at No. 1 singles where Mountain Lion sophomore Chad Allender topped Golden Tiger junior Amir Alkhafaji.
"This was our fourth [meeting]," Allender said, "and every time playing him is an honor because he's such a gentleman. It's so fun playing him; he's like no one I've ever played. Hats off to him."
Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec
Altoona's Chad Allender competes for the Mountain Lions.
Hollidaysburg's Amir Alkhafaji returns a shot for the Tigers.
Allender and Alkhafaji drew a big crowd for their final set because all of the other matches already had been decided.
"I told Amir it's like Wimbledon every time we play," Allender said, laughing.
Allender has won three of the four meetings between the two and the Altoona sophomore needed every ounce of energy to prevail yesterday.
Alkhafaji won the first set, 6-4, but Allender evened the score with a 7-5 win in the second set. Allender then won the last three games to take the deciding third set, 6-3.
"My coach [Eric Hovan] gave me some words of encouragement," Allender said of his comeback. "I used my fitness and ran everything down and managed to play better the second and third sets.
"Halfway through my second set, we already had lost two matches," Allender continued, "so, if I lost my match, we would have been out of it.
"Coach said be like [NBA basketball star] Kevin Durant and win out, so I tried to be like Kevin Durant."
The teams split two matches in the regular season, both winning at home, Altoona, 5-0, and Hollidaysburg, 4-1. It was much closer this time.
Altoona's Ryan Good won in straight sets at No. 2 singles while Hollidaysburg's Max Sheetz did the same at No. 3 singles. The teams traded wins in doubles play, too. Altoona's No. 1 doubles duo of Joey Settimio and Mustafa Ahmad lost the first set before rallying to win the next two. Hollidaysburg's Emre Cardakali and Josh Cobler were victorious in the second doubles, also in three sets.
"Obviously, that type match can go either way," Altoona coach Eric Hovan said of the multiple three-setters. "We were getting [beat] early in a lot of those matches.
"We won at No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles both down a set," Hovan noted. "Even the 2 doubles was down a set and took it to a third.
"You had to be impressed with how the kids competed today when they were down early."
Hollidaysburg coach Brian Denis was disappointed with the outcome.
"I thought that one team would win, 3-2, and I figured three and possibly four of the matches would go three sets," Denis said.
"We had our opportunities at No. 1 doubles to close it out in the second set and that certainly would have made it much easier," Denis noted. "But, they tried their hardest today and just fell on the short end of the stick.
"There were a lot of moment swings today and we might have panicked a little bit," he said. "For awhile, it looked like we were cruising, then all of a sudden we lost three sets.
"Tennis is a game of momentum and we had a little trouble matching their intensity. Once they sensed the momentum, they took it and ran with it. All the credit to them," Denis added.
Altoona plays at State College on Wednesday afternoon with the 6-AAA team title on the line.
SINGLES: 1, Allender, A, def. Alkhafaji, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3; 2, Good, A, def. Johnson, 6-4, 6-0; 3, Sheetz, H, def. Reighard, 6-1, 6-2.
DOUBLES: 1, Settimio/Ahmad, A, def. Miller/Kirsch, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2; Cardakali/Cobler, H, def. Houk/Eiman, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3.