With her team leading 4-1 and needing one more win to seal the match, Nicolette Fajardo was the last member of the Nogales Apaches girls tennis squad left on the court Tuesday.
With all the spectators, players and coaches in attendance at the first-round Division II state tournament match now watching and cheering her contentious No. 4 singles showdown, Fajardo made sure the No. 7-seeded Apaches didn’t have to go to doubles play to earn a decisive fifth victory over visiting Coconino High School. Having won the first set 6-4, she came back from a 5-4 deficit in the second, surviving several set point opportunities from her opponent to win 7-5 and seal a 5-1 win for Nogales.
“I tried to use the wind as an advantage and to move the ball to all sides of the court and move her so she wouldn’t be able to get to them,” Fajardo said afterward of her winning approach.
As for the pressure of playing a decisive match with all eyes on her, she said: “I tried to ignore it all and just focus on the game and try to win it for my team.”
The stage was set for the exciting conclusion beginning with a convincing 6-1, 6-1 victory in the No. 3 match by Zarina Gonzalez, who coach Kerri Muñoz referred to as her “go-to” player.
“She won nice and quick. I knew watching her scores that I didn’t even have to worry about her,” Muñoz said.
Samantta Garcia delivered another win on the No. 2 court. “Even though her scores were 6-3, 6-3, she was very in command of the match,” Muñoz said.
In the No. 6 contest, Yanula Rodriguez earned the Apaches’ third victory, but her win over Coconino’s Hannah Goodman didn’t come easy. After Rodriguez took the first set 6-4, Goodman came back to win the second by the same score. Rodriguez turned around and won the third set by another 6-4 mark.
“For a while there, that one kind of looked like it might go the other way because she was losing that second set,” Muñoz said. “But she ended up winning at the end so I was really proud of her.”
No. 1 seeds Diana Garcia of Nogales and Emma Walker of Coconino were “very evenly matched,” Muñoz said, as evidenced by Walker’s hard-fought 7-6 win in the first set. Garcia was unable to rebound after the loss and Walker took the second set and match, 6-2.
“In the second set, (Garcia) tried to make a change to do better and it wasn’t a strong enough change,” Muñoz said.
No. 5 Carolina Durazo “was very in command of her match,” the coach said, adding that she still had to overcome some tightness at the end of her 6-1, 6-2 win.
“The hardest part in tennis is finishing,” Muñoz said. “What happens is the girls will get kind of tight, they’ll start thinking of things and I kind of saw that going on with Carolina. But she came up and served out that set, so I was really proud of her.”
That left it up to Fajardo to finish out a No. 4 match played amid a buzz that impressed even her coach. “You’ve never seen a crowd like this in tennis,” Muñoz said afterward.
Part of tension arose from the fact that tennis players make their own inbounds and out-of-bounds calls, and Fajardo disagreed with some of the calls made by her opponent. As a result, she exercised her option late in the match to ask for a lines judge to review questionable calls. Muñoz stepped into the role, but never had to overrule any player decisions.
Muñoz said she was proud of Fajardo for standing up for herself, not just by asking for a lines judge, but also by approaching her opponent at the net to discuss disagreements over scoring and other calls.
“She’s a quiet, extremely humble little girl, and she stepped up to the plate and did really well,” the coach said.
With the win, the NHS girls advanced to play regional nemesis and No. 2-seeded Catalina Foothills in a quarterfinal match on Tuesday, April 30 in Tucson.
“I feel very happy and glad that we’re moving on to the next round, and I’m really proud of my team,” Fajardo said.
In the meantime, Diana Garcia will play in the opening round of the D-II singles state tournament on Friday in Glendale, and Fajardo and Durazo will play in the state doubles tournament at the same date and location.
Nogales, an overachieving team with only one senior and five first-time varsity players, earned the No. 7 seed in the D-II team tournament by going 11-2 in the regular season. They won their last nine-consecutive regular-season matches, seven of which came by 9-0 scores. Coconino, based in Flagstaff, was seeded No. 10 in the tournament after finishing the regular season 11-4.