Tears were flowing down the face of Pembroke Hill senior Josh Bortnick after his team had won the Missouri Class 1 tennis team championship on Thursday at the Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield.
The tears were not for Bortnick but for legendery Raider coach Dale Eschelbrenner.
Eschelbrenner, who had coached the Raiders to 13 boys titles and seven girls titles during his 25 years as head coach, passed away from cancer last August.
But Eschelbrenner was certainly not forgotten by the Pembroke Hill coaches and players on Thursday.
“It is nice to win this after coming in second twice and it is fun to share it with a great group of guys, but this is more about Dale than anything,” Bortnick said.
Pembroke Hill swept its three doubles matches in the finals against Priory after a hard-fought 5-3 semifinal victory over Springfield Catholic earlier on Thursday.
It was fitting that the two wins which gave Pembroke Hill a 5-2 victory in the finals came from the two seniors in the starting six, Bortnick and Thomas Thornton.
“We were out here today for Dale,” said Thornton, who won the clincher at No. 6 singles. “He had so much influence on everyone. This was a showcase for him to show how much he did for us both on and off the court.”
The championship was the first for Pembroke Hill coach Justin Romick, who had the big shoes to fill after Eschelbrenner’s death.
“Dale would have loved a day like today,” Romick said. “His death made this season hard but also very meaningful. I know that Josh and Thomas had a long relation with him, even before high school tennis. It was great that they were able to honor his legacy with this title.”
The Raiders survived the semifinal match against Springfield Catholic, but Romick could tell that there was a different focus when they went out for the three doubles matches against Priory which started the match.
“I knew that Priory was a very good team,” Romick said of the team which defeated four-time defending team champion Mary Institute-Country Day School in the district championship. “I just wanted to get as many of the doubles matches as I could. I would have been very happy with two but thrilled to get three. I just saw a different kind of intensity out there when we started the doubles this afternoon.”
Priory needed to win five of the six singles matches which was a real challenge but something it had done during the season. The Rebels had fallen behind Mary Institute-Country Day School 4-1 in the district championship but went on to win the last four courts with no margin for error.
Priory did win matches at Nos. 2 and 4 singles. But Bortnick defeated Victor Djavaherian 6-1, 6-2 at No. 1 singles, and Thornton beat Scott Berni 6-1, 6-4 at No. 6 singles.
“I wanted to finish it out,” Thornton said. “I saw Josh and knew that he had won, so it was great to go out with a great match point and finish the season with a bang.”
▪ Rockhurst finished third in the Class 2 team tournament. The Hawklets lost their first match of the season against juggernaut and eventual champion Columbia Rock Bridge 5-0 in the semifinals. Rockhurst went on to defeat Parkway Central 5-0 in the third-place match: The Hawklets easily swept the doubles against the Colts and then got straight set wins in singles from Henry Goeke at No. 2 and Donovan Welsh at No. 3.
The individual portion of the tournament will begin Friday at 9 a.m. in Springfield. Championship matches, for both singles and doubles in Class 1 and 2, will be held Saturday.