As Jacob Rankin left the Carmel tennis courts on Friday, the senior was met with a hug from coach Mike Esposito and a round of applause from the assembled Northeastern fans.
Rankin was a part of four sectional trophies, three Tri-Eastern Conference championships, two regional crowns and one semistate title.
It wasn’t until Rankin had played his final high school tennis match with his team that he learned of one more accomplishment for the Knights.
Northeastern, enrollment 423, is the smallest public school to ever make an appearance in Indiana’s boys tennis state finals.
“That’s ‘Hoosiers,’ basically,” Rankin said. “That’s real cool stuff.
“I looked at the draw this week, and you see us and then you see Park Tudor, North Central, Carmel, Penn, Evansville Memorial, Jasper and Delta. You see all of those schools, and they are double, if not triple, some of them five or six times the size of us. … We’re just truly blessed to have this opportunity. It just doesn’t come around but once in a lifetime.”
Northeastern’s run finally came to an end Friday afternoon at Carmel, but it was at the hands of the state’s most decorated tennis program.
North Central, owner of 17 state championships, halted Northeastern 5-0. The Panthers advance to today’s round to meet Carmel, with the winner advancing to the 2 p.m. final.
“Just being here is really all we could ask for,” said senior Charlie Webster. “This is the most people I’ve played in front of. I didn’t expect it to be this big of an event.
“We really did come out and play well today, despite the nerves.”
Rankin said when he finished his match and heard the applause, he assumed it was for a good point played by Grant Esposito on a nearby court.
“I was already getting a little emotional when I was walking out,” Rankin said. “It’s unbelievable that it’s over. … It’s sad to move and close this chapter, but it’s been unbelievable.”
The closest matches came at No. 1 and No. 2 singles, and at No. 1 doubles with Webster and partner Craig Dingwerth.
Webster and Dingwerth fell 6-4, 6-1, their first loss in the state tournament. North Central’s William Reifeis and Patrick McAuley remained undefeated at that position.
“It’s a great experience. It’s just crazy that we made it this far,” Dingwerth said.
” … We came down here and we just wanted to prove that we’re meant to be here, that we’re good enough to actually be here, and not just some fluke.”
Grant Esposito came close to extending his No. 2 singles match to three sets.
Esposito fell 6-3, 7-6 (8-6) in a tight match with North Central’s J.J. Kroot, who is now 22-1.
“Grant going 3 and 6 is a huge testament to him, a huge testament to the team,” coach Esposito said.
North Central is ranked second in the Indiana High School Tennis Coaches Association state poll. Northeastern is 15th.
The Panthers improved to 24-1. They were state runner-up last year, falling to Carmel 4-1. It was the Greyhounds’ third straight state title.
“I’m proud of the kids,” coach Esposito said. “We’re walking away smiling, a great celebration. I know Jake being a senior, and Shane (Stiner) and Charlie and the rest of them, it ends their career, but what a way to go out. Outstanding time, and hopefully people who came feel like we represented the area and our school well, because I’m thrilled.”
Northeastern seniors are Rankin, Stiner, Webster, Corey Dingwerth and Broc Hornung. The Knights finished 19-2.
“It’s just a great experience,” Hornung said. “It’s real big for our school. It’s the first (state appearance) in history. It just really puts us out there. State history, too, smallest school to ever be here.”
The boys tennis team is the first team from Northeastern to make it to a state final.
The Knights halted Franklin Central 3-2 last Saturday in a thriller to win a semistate title at Center Grove.
“It didn’t just happen. We wanted it,” said Rankin, who played at No. 1 singles when the Knights won their first sectional title in more than a decade in 2010. “When we saw freshman year what this was, and we saw that we had the capability — we knew we had Grant coming in. We knew we had some guys coming back. We put in crazy amounts of hard work, just to get to this point, right now.
“Even if it means us ending up in a loss right now, it was a really hard and long journey. But we knew what we wanted and we worked for it and we got here.”