When the Clear Creek Wildcats needed Michael Raji’s service game to count the most on Thursday, the senior responded in a blaze of glory.
Leading 5-4 in the third set, Raji served to near perfection, forcing a return error on match point to send he and partner Carter Crookston into the Class 6A boys doubles final at the University Interscholastic League Tennis State Championships.
Raji and Crookston outlasted Plano West’s Arjun Kersten and Caden Moortgat in a three-set semifinal thriller, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, advancing to today’s 10 a.m. final at Texas A&M University’s George P. Mitchell Tennis Center against Austin Westlake’s Roger Chou and Cyrus Sabharwal.
“The difference in that third set was Michael holding serve,” Clear Creek head coach Derick Geise said afterward. “That was a challenge for us the whole match. Michael knew we had to come through with his serve, and he did just that.”
With the semifinal victory, Crookston and Raji become the first-ever Wildcats boys doubles team in school history to reach a state final.
Crookston and Raji fell behind 0-15 in the decisive 10th game, but quickly reeled off four straight points, with Crookston hitting a pair of volley winners and Raji sending an overhead into the bleachers in between for a 40-15 advantage.
Then when Kersten hit his forehand return into the net, the Wildcats wrote their names into the Clear Creek High School tennis recordbooks — for the time being.
“Making history is great, but I don’t want to be the first to reach the finals,” Raji said. “I want to be the first to win it.”
Crookston and Raji started the day with a 6-4, 7-5 quarterfinals win over Austin Vandegrift’s Nic Cusano and Blaine Kanak.
The Wildcats had cruised to a 5-2 command in the second set with back-to-back love service games, but could not hold Raji’s serve at 5-3 and match point, eventually ending up in a 5-5 deadlock.
But thanks to Crookston’s quick hands at the net on match point No. 2, Clear Creek broke Cusano for the first-round win.
“We’re really good at getting our focus back,” Crookston said, looking back at the initial match.
Then in the semifinals, the two teams exchanged holding serves for the first nine games before the Wildcats finally broke through breaking Cusano’s, courtesy of a double fault on set point.
The second set was just as close, this time Plano West answering with a break, again in the 10th game.
During the 10-minute break in between sets, “I told them we still had to play our game, that (Plano West) got hot in that second set,” Geise said. “I wasn’t concerned. They’ve always been able to amp up their game. They proved it at regionals.
“We made some big shots in the third set and won some big points. The turning point is when we broke (Moortgat) to make it 3-2 us. We were ahead, and we’re a better frontrunner team.”
“We were fighting from behind up to that point, and the momentum from then on was on our side,” Raji said.
Crookston followed holding serve for a 4-2 lead, but Plano West evened the score two games later with a service break of its own.
The Wildcats then bounced back with another clutch break, Raji hitting the game winner with a topspin backhand return that landed harmlessly on the baseline untouched.
“Even though it got to 4-all and got a little nerve racking, that gave us so much confidence when we broke back,” Crookston said. “We picked our games up more and played with more and more confidence when Michael served that last game.”
However, “We can celebrate now and enjoy the accomplishment, but tomorrow we just have to forget about it and trust in ourselves again,” he added.
“I want it bad, and I want to win for it for Michael since this is his last shot at it.”
Meanwhile, Clear Lake High School’s Megan Flores and Bryan Qian dropped a three-set heartbreaker in the mixed doubles quarterfinals at the state tournament.
Flores and Qian, Clear Creek Independent School District’s second state entry, lost to Southlake Carroll’s Taylor Reusche and Chris Lash 6-2, 5-7, 6-0.