For now, Lexington junior Mason Dragos can live with being the best Division II tennis player in Ohio not from Cincinnati.
Specifically, one school in the Queen City.
Dragos matched the highest boys finish in Lex history by taking third in singles Saturday at the state tournament, right behind repeat champion Asher Hirsch of Cincinnati Country Day and his freshman teammate JJ Wolf.
It was a title sweep for Country Day as senior Patrick Wildman and freshman Kevin Yu collaborated to win the doubles championship in three sets.
How much sweeter life would be for Dragos and Lex coach Ron Schaub if Kentucky expanded its borders and swallowed up Hamilton County.
Wolf was on the verge of dethroning Hirsch, leading 6-3, 5-3 with a match point. But he was cramping and trying to hang on, praying the match wouldn’t go three sets. Prayers unanswered.
Hirsch forced a second-set tiebreaker and when he won that 7-5, Wolf had no choice but to retire.
Dragos might have been partly responsible for Wolf’s fate after giving the nation’s seventh-ranked freshman all he could handle in their semifinal bout Saturday morning. Dragos succumbed 7-6 (7-4), 6-3, but the first set obviously could have gone either way and Dragos twice had a pair of break points in the second set (games 1 and 5) where he couldn’t capitalize.
“There must be something in the (Cincinnati) water,” said Dragos, who earned first-team All-Ohio honors by making the Final Four — a stage previously reached at Lex by only Ty Schaub (2004) and Nicky Wong (2011). “I would have felt a little better if (Wolf) had won the state title because I could have and should have won (our) match.”
Wolf isn’t physically imposing. He looks like a typical freshman who hasn’t hit a growth spurt. But looks can deceive. Although not flashy, there doesn’t appear to be a shot he can’t hit. He kept the ball deep and on those rare occasions when Dragos was able to make his way to the net Wolf handcuffed him with shots at his ankles.
“I couldn’t attack very much,” said Dragos, who made it to the tournament’s second day for the first time after being eliminated in the quarterfinals the last two years. “I’d rather play Hirsch because he’s not as consistent.”
Wolf’s emergence this season gave Country Day the luxury of moving Wildman, a two-time singles runner-up, to doubles. Last year, Wildman lost to Hirsch in the finals after rallying from a one-set deficit to beat Dragos in the quarters.
“Those were two really good athletes going at it,” said Schaub of the Dragos-Wolf showdown. “I thought Mace played real well. JJ Wolf is a super talent. His groundstrokes are phenomenal. Mace is powerful, though. He’s so capable.”
Although losing the first set in a tiebreaker had to be disheartening for Dragos, Schaub didn’t think it, psychologically, played a factor in the outcome.
“I thought Mace was real focused and motivated (in the second set),” Schaub said. “It’s just the semifinals of state.”
Dragos ended the tournament on a high note, bouncing back an hour after his loss to Wolf to beat Poland Seminary senior Garrett Gardner 6-2, 7-6 (7-1) for third place.
Holding serve for a 5-3 lead in the second set, it looked like Dragos would finish in under an hour. But Gardner reeled off the next three games and had three set points before the Lex lefty recovered to blast Gardner off the court with a mixture of overhead putaways and forehand winners.
“All your motivation is drained, mentally and physically, from losing in the semis,” Dragos said. “Luckily I won the first set with ease because (my game) almost came back to bite me.”
Which brings us back to the fangs on Wolf.
“If I could do (the semifinals) over, I probably would have been more prepared, physically,” Dragos said. “I got gassed like the last two years, but this year I was able to push back (the fatigue) a match. Once he won that first set, my confidence was shaken.”
Rebounding to win the consolation finals gives Dragos some momentum heading into Sunday’s Ohio Tennis Coaches Association team tournament at Reynoldsburg High School.
The Minutemen are defending Division II champs but Columbus Academy, their 9 a.m. semifinal opponent, is deeper (five of their players competed at this OHSAA state tourney) and ranked No. 2 in the final OTCA poll.
In the other semi is top-ranked Country Day, led by the big three of Hirsch, Wolf and Wildman, against No. 7 Gates Mills Hawken.
Lex assistant Rob Michels expects Dragos to be on top of his game.
“Mace played real well against Wolf; it was a dead-even match except for a couple of loose points,” Michels said. “Mace’s serve was lights-out. The plan was to keep his shots deep and then unleash his forehand to dictate points. But that kid’s good.
“Hirsch probably has a bigger game, but Wolf has a more solid game.”