STATE COLLEGE — All season, Owen Lloyd and Drew Cagle have been relying on their own abilities, their skills and their determination to win on the tennis court.
They were the No. 1 and No. 2 singles players for State College, using their all-around games to find success. Both, however, fell short in the District 6 Championship tournament.
Undeterred, and with just a few days to prepare, they bounced back to repeat as champions in district doubles and qualify for the PIAA meet.
“We felt like we played really well,” said Lloyd, a senior. “We just played our game, hit our shots and took control early.”
“We got the lead early on and started playing aggressively,” Cagle, a sophomore, added. “Just played our game, and took control in our hands instead of theirs.”
The duo will compete at the PIAA tournament on May 24 in Hershey, meeting the champions from District 1 in the Philadelphia suburbs. Their opponents will not be determined until May 11.
Lloyd and Cagle earned the district title with their decisive 6-1, 6-0 sweep against Altoona’s Jonah Brandt and Casey Rispoli on May 2. The day before, the pair won 6-0, 6-0 against the DuBois pair of James Oberlin and Corey Giles, and 6-0, 6-2 in the semifinals against Michael and Nick Schimminger of Altoona.
Brandt and Rispoli had eliminated State College’s Daniel Xu and Ronit Patel 6-1, 6-4 in the quarterfinals. Xu and Patel won their first contest 6-0, 6-3 over Central Mountain’s Morgan Talbot and Gavyn Walker.
Lloyd and Cagle are not quite done playing singles, however. State College scored a 3-0 win against Hollidaysburg in the district team semifinals, and then earned the district title again 3-0 against Altoona. Against the Tigers, Cagle beat Jake Irwin 6-1, 6-1 and Sankar Ramesh won 6-1, 6-0 against Anthony Martinelli in singles, and Ethan Rowland and Evan Jones topped Nathan Ferris and Jacob Gallagher 6-2, 6-3 in doubles. Lloyd was winning his singles match against Rami Alkhafaji, and Xu and Patel were up in their doubles match, when the team win was secured. Singles wins from Lloyd (6-1, 6-0 against Brandt), Cagle (6-2, 6-2 against Rispoli) and Ramesh (6-1, 6-2 against Nick Schimminger) secured the title. Doubles matches for the teams of Patel-Xu and Jones-Rowland were abandoned when the win was secured.
State College will face the District 7 champ in the PIAA first round on May 14.
This marks the fourth-straight year Lloyd has captured a district doubles crown – a first in District 6 history.
Lloyd had been hoping to finally break through on the singles side. He had reached the finals the week before and played a marathon of better than two hours against Alkhafaji, falling 7-5, 7-5, with opportunities to win both sets.
“I was really disappointed in that, but I felt going in that it was Rami’s match to win,” Lloyd said. “I gave it everything I had, and I think it was a lot closer than everybody else expected it to be. I was really happy with how I did, and I think it was one of the best matches I’ve ever played.”
Despite the heart-breaking loss, Lloyd looked at the positive side: He knew he and Cagle had a good chance to repeat as champs, and he would rather go to Hershey with a teammate than alone.
Last year, the pair hadn’t really practiced together for doubles until the week of the district tournament, and then a little more leading into the state meet. They didn’t get much more time together this year, but did find a few opportunities here and there, including an exhibition set against Hershey High School last month.
Practice time together does help — learning when their partner will go left or right, stay at the net or drop back — but they have something that is more important. To coach Jane Borden, talent doesn’t determine doubles success as much as their compatibility.
“Chemistry adds a whole other dimension,” Borden said. “Sometimes you can have those skills and no chemistry, and it can ruin a team.”
Borden has been at the helm of the program for all but a few seasons since 1991 and has seen plenty of singles players take stabs at doubles. Not every pairing is successful.
She has been especially proud when a senior team captain has been teamed with a younger player, who blossomed with the pairing.
“When you get to this level, compatibility and chemistry makes a huge difference,” Borden said. “You can get a lot more out of your partner if you have good chemistry. They’ll play to a higher level.”
Borden has seen successful doubles pairings at PIAAs. Her son Chris teamed with Blake Gregory for a state title in 2010, and Chris had also played in the PIAA finals the year before.
For Cagle and Lloyd, it’s about adapting their skills and personality. Instead of keeping their thoughts to themselves between points, and brooding about any missed opportunities, they try to stay positive, encourage each other, and win or lose give high-fives after every point.
“It’s really important to talk with your partner in between points,” Cagle said. “The communication … and the encouragement between partners.”
Having that experience is a departure from what they have seen all spring.
“When you’re playing singles, it’s all on you,” Lloyd said. “When you win you get all the glory, but then you have to deal with the loss by yourself.”
Both have been playing the game a while, a sport the rest of each player’s family plays. Cagle picked up a racket around age 5 or 6,
Lloyd a little later. Both also are glued to watching the best on TV. Lloyd’s favorite player is Andy Murray. Cagle is partial to John Isner.
After he graduates next month, Lloyd will venture across town to study math and economics at Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College. He also is pondering playing tennis with the club team on campus. Cagle is still contemplating his future.
Together, Borden knows the combination works very well.
“Most of the time the kids make my job pretty easy in terms of that,” Borden said. “They’re disciplined, they work hard in the offseason, they have good chemistry together, they both have good serves, they both know how to return, and they’re comfortable at the net to volley — and when you can do those things you can put them together to have a very good team.”
They will get more time together to prepare for the state tournament, with Borden inviting back several former players to give the boys some tough doubles competition, but if they play like they did last week, they are feeling pretty optimistic. They also like what they have learned during the transition.
“It’s a more connected experience,” Cagle said. “As far singles, I’m a more positive person, and that can only help going into doubles, just to be there for the other partner just the same as they would be there for me.”