By Rick Nolte, Sports Editor
ENGLEWOOD — Sarah Lown and the Lemon Bay High School girls tennis team had seen this before.
For the seventh straight year the Manta Rays were in the state tournament, trying to finally advance to the semifinals for the first time in program history. Lown, a junior, had been a party to the previous two visits that had seen Lemon Bay finish no closer to a title than fifth in the eight-team field.
This season, however, a change in the tournament format gave the Mantas hope of breaking through. Rather than a school’s five singles players and two doubles teams playing through a bracket with the top two individuals/teams seeded, which truly was the luck of the draw on first-round opponents, the teams faced off in a match like the regular season and earlier playoff rounds.
Lemon Bay won the doubles matches to open the Class 2A event against Robinson and needed only two singles wins to clinch a spot in the semifinals. However, the Knights rallied, and midway through singles play it was anyone’s match.
“Coach (Darrell) Roach came over and said everybody was losing except Shannen (Smith),” recalled Lown, who herself was down a set to Elliot Peterson at No. 1. “I knew it was up to me to get us back.”
Lown reversed her fortunes and those of the Mantas, winning the second set 6-2 before rolling in the tiebreaker 10-2. She joined Smith with the clinching points in the 4-2 decision that gave the Mantas the record-setting win.
“We had to have that from her,” said Roach, whose team was the lone public school semifinalist. “She’d lost her first set, but came back and stayed aggressive and got on a roll.”
It was the kind of performance Roach and his players had become accustomed to from Lown, who has been named the Sun’s All-Area girls tennis player of the year after leading the Manta Rays to a 14-3 record that included district and region championships.
She finished 15-5 in singles and teamed with Ashley Tormey to go 12-5 at No. 1 doubles. Her singles losses before the state semifinals came to opponents from Naples and Venice, both schools in a higher class, and Theo Schultz of district rival Bayshore.
The matches against Schultz in the regular season and district tournament joined the one in the state quarterfinal as particularly illustrative of Lown’s game this season. Both she and Roach counted the trio as defining moments for her season.
Schultz, who qualified for the state tournament as an individual, gave up only a handful of games to Lown in two sets in the regular season.
“It was pretty bad the first time. Not a good day,” Lown said. “I set a goal to come back and have a different match the next time.”
The two met again in the district final, and although the outcome was the same, the path to it was different for both players. Schultz won the first set 6-2, but Lown reversed things to lead late in the second set before falling 7-5.
“She was just a hair’s breath of beating her,” Roach said of Lown. “She was a game away from splitting (and forcing a tiebreaker). She really upped her game from the first match, and when she didn’t win, she was so disappointed.”
Said Lown: “It was a good learning match. I gave myself a chance when I didn’t before. I took a lot of confidence from it.”
Roach pointed to the pivotal quarterfinal match at the state tournament as lasting impact.
“She needed that type of game to win that (state match),” he said. “She knew she had it. Had she not shown that before, there’s no way she would’ve beaten that girl (Peterson) and gotten us in the semifinals.”
Lown saw it as another step up the ladder of learning.
“It was a really good accomplishment for me mentally,” she said. “I was able to overcome adversity and help us reach our goal of the top four.”
Lown, 17, started playing tennis along with other sports about 10 years ago. One by one she discarded the others and began playing tennis competitively just before high school.
She has been Lemon Bay’s unquestioned No. 1 player since beginning her sophomore year. Her 12-month commitment to the sport has separated her from most opponents, and those it hasn’t, she seeks out in order to improve.
When the high school season ends in April, Lown not only continues practice, but plays United States Tennis Association tournaments the remainder of the year. It places her against others who hold state or national rankings by the sport’s governing body.
“She goes out and takes lumps against kids with rankings or academy players because she knows that’s what it takes to get closer to their level,” Roach said of Lown, who played No. 3 singles as a freshman. “She’s kind of fearless that way because she knows what she gets back.”
Lown will never discount a victory. But losing match in which she leaves nothing on the court against a superior competitor has its rewards, if not immediate, at some point in the future.
Her game has reached big picture and honing its focus often comes in small steps.
“I look at it as having nothing to lose ever and everything to gain,” the 5-foot-10 right-hander said. “Playing well has become my main goal a lot of times because if I do that, I know I’ll have learned something.”
Much of her advancement recently has come in her mental approach to a match, a set, a game or even a point. Roach also said Lown isn’t afraid to employ something she’s been working on in practice in a match, even when it hangs in the balance.
Lown is not only the team’s leader but a consummate teammate. Just as she can improve by facing better players in her matches outside of the high school season, Lown seeks to do the same for her teammates.
She is just as likely to be warming up for practice with her doubles partner or a teammate a couple of spots removed from her in the singles order as a member of the junior varsity.
“A lot of number 1s don’t even practice with the team. They’re working with their pro,” Roach said. “Sarah might be hitting with the No. 11 player. She’s the model of a team player.”
With the majority of this season’s team returning next year, the Manta Rays aim to continue their string of success in the district, region and maybe challenge to better that semifinal state showing.
Lown, again, will be at the heart of the effort, which she hopes includes a district singles championship to go along with the team’s accomplishments.
“We have some quality players who’ll step up when the time comes,” said Lown, who hopes her USTA performances along with another stellar high school season will attract the eye of college coaches. “We reached a big goal this year.”
Lemon Bay – Junior
Went 16-2 as an individual and teamed up with Shannen Smith to go a perfect 15-0 in doubles, which included a district championship.
Lemon Bay – Senior
Closed out her Manta Rays career with a 17-1 regular season that ended with a district championship at No. 4 singles.
Lemon Bay – Junior
Finished 11-5 as the Manta Rays’ No. 2 singles player and 12-5 in doubles as Lemon Bay earned the school’s first-ever top-four finish at states.
Lemon Bay – Senior
Played out her final year at Lemon Bay as the No. 5 singles player, going 16-1 en route to a district title.
Charlotte: Jessica Moore
North Port: Courtney Purcell
Port Charlotte: Corrine Bresky
All-Area team capsules by Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports.