The six-plus-week regular season for prep girls tennis is a whirlwind of multiple high-level invitationals where the best teams beat up on each other like crazy all in an effort to earn good wins and build up stature for the WIAA seeding meetings and state tournament series.
And with that portion of the season all but done, top-ranked Homestead still stands atop the field, unbeaten and being chased again and again by its North Shore Conference rivals.
That happened again on Sept. 17, when Homestead, second-ranked Nicolet and fifth-ranked Whitefish Bay took the full measure of a strong eight-team field in sweeping the top three spots in the Nicolet Team Invitational. And that was with Homestead's top singles player Katya Mikhailenko gone on a college visit, Nicolet's top singles player Amy Drame spraining an ankle late in the day and Nicolet doubles player Emma Koppa (daughter of coach Tim Koppa) out with an illness.
All three teams are breathing a sigh of relief as they use this week to rest and prepare for the North Shore Conference tournament Sept. 27 and 28.
Homestead coach Jackie Egelhoff, whose Highlanders won five straight state titles from 2008-2012, knows the target her team has on its back and is trying to keep everything in perspective.
"We're supposed to be the team that everyone is trying to beat," she said, "and it's up to us to figure out a way to stay one step ahead."
In the Nicolet team tournament, which came just a week after the Knights hosted their own individually bracketed Sweet 16 Tournament, Homestead hosted Green Bay Notre Dame (7-0), Bay (5-2) and Nicolet (5-2).
Egelhoff was pleased with how her team adapted to Mikhailenko's absence as one of her prime freshmen, Natalie Yang, moved up to two singles and scored a good victory over Nicolet's highly regarded Angela Sendick (6-2, 6-1) in the final.
After Drame had to default with the ankle injury at first singles to the Highlanders' Andie Weise, the outcome became pretty clear, but all three of the doubles matches were wars. In the ongoing battle between Homestead's Frankie La Londe and Sasha Shapsis and Nicolet's Elise Gerard and Annabelle Crowley, another round went to the Homestead pair, 4-6, 6-4 (10-4).
At second doubles, Homestead's Bridget Brown and Alyssa Boyer downed Nicolet's Mia Bohlen and Jaida Drame, 7-5, 2-6 (10-7), and at third doubles, the Knights' Marli Stellhorn and Ellie Berman beat Homestead's Helen Watkins and Crace Crowley, 6-1, 4-6 (10-4).
"We were really happy with those two tiebreaker wins," Egelhoff said. "It's always good when you can pull out matches like that."
Singles players Weise, Yang and Jamie Gebhardt all went unbeaten in singles, as did the doubles teams of La Londe and Shapsis and Brown and Boyer.
Tim Koppa said Gerard and Crowley may have been a little off their game in the final. They had just scored a huge upset in the Knights' 6-1 semifinal win over Neenah as they knocked off a Rockets' pair in three sets that had been unbeaten going into the match.
"I've watched a lot of doubles over the years, but that was one of the best matches I've ever seen," Koppa said. "No one held back. All four kids played really, really well."
Koppa felt his team adapted well in the Homestead match despite his team's short-handed status. Fourth singles player Morgan Markenson finished off an unbeaten day in downing Homestead's Caroline Birmingham (6-1, 6-1) for the Knights' other win in the final.
Nicolet had opened the tournament with a 5-2 win over state power DSHA.
Bay had a strong day, too, as the Blue Dukes edged Brookfield Central, 4-3, to open the match before falling to Homestead. They closed the day with a 5-2 third-place match victory over third-ranked Neenah. The Blue Dukes did some mixing and matching of their lineup as well.
Blue Duke assistant coach Trevor Hill said it was a very positive day, citing the team's mental toughness in the Neenah match.
"This is a very competitive tournament, and our girls got some great matches in as we head into the final stretch," he said.
Elena Deslongchamps at fourth singles and doubles players Gracie Riedl and and Nicole Steinmetz (working with varying partners) all went 3-0 on the day.