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Familiar foes Varnum and Smolder will meet for AAA girls title today

May 11, 2019

CHARLESTON — The Class AAA No. 1 girls singles championship at the West Virginia high school state tennis tournament will feature a pair of girls who have never been there before.

Hurricane’s Lexie Smolder and Cabell Midland’s Channing Varnum rolled in straight-set semifinal wins on Friday. Smolder topped Wheeling Park’s Abby Jones 6-1, 6-1, while Varnum defeated Morgantown’s Emme McKnight 6-2, 6-0 to advance.

While the championship experience will be new for both players, the matchup will not be. They have faced off four times this season, with Smolder holding a 3-1 edge, heading into Saturday’s Class AAA championship match.

“We’ve played a lot and we’re both great competitors, so I’m exciting to be competing against her,” Smolder said. “We’re really good friends. I love Channing, and I’m excited to face her.”

Both girls said facing each other in a friendly rivalry alleviates some pressure but also adds some because both want to get the win in their final high school matchup.

While Smolder is a freshman, Varnum is wrapping up her career with Cabell Midland. It is especially sweet for Varnum, who is making her first finals appearance after falling in the semifinals in the last three seasons.

“Oh, I’m so excited,” Varnum said. “Three times getting stuck in the semifinals, but I finally made it out.”

While the faces in the girls No. 1 championship will be new, there will be one familiar face at No. 1 on the boys side.

Huntington High’s J.J. Mercer increased his record to 79-0 in his singles career, but it was not easy as he faced George Washington’s Anthony McIntosh.

In the second set, McIntosh matched Mercer’s intensity and took a 4-3 advantage as he tried to even the match. However, Mercer bore down and

took his game to another level to close out a 6-2, 6-4 victory.

Mercer said the match had all the feel of a Saturday championship and was gracious to his long-time rival after the battle.

“He played probably one of the better matches I’ve ever seen him play, so all credit to him,” Mercer said. “He did a great job. Early on in both sets, he was going for it.”

Despite the loss, McIntosh said the atmosphere and the competition is memorable as he closed out his singles career with the Patriots.

“It’s a lot of fun,” McIntosh said. “Obviously, he’s one of the best that’s played in West Virginia. You have to leave it out there. That whole second set was close, and I had chances that you have to take against someone like him.”

McIntosh and George Washington teammate Nadeem Jones got some revenge later in the evening when they took down Mercer and Huntington High teammate Will Touma in straight sets (6-1, 7-5) in No. 1 doubles action. McIntosh and Jones meet Parkersburg’s Jacob Boone and Seena Saadevandi in the finals.

Mercer will face Boone — a 6-1, 5-7, 6-1 winner over University’s Kyle Hawthorne — in the 8 a.m. Class AAA boys No. 1 title match.

While the top singles matches took the focus, one of the key matches in the team aspect came at No. 2 singles as Jones topped Saadevandi in an exciting three-set thriller that was a rematch of last year’s No. 2 singles championship.

Jones dropped the first set, but gave the Patriots a needed point after rallying for a 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 win that took nearly three hours to complete.

“After losing to him last year, I wanted to show how I could play better,” Jones said. “I felt like I was being too timid and not moving in and being aggressive enough. I made sure to get in early and hit some big serves and forehands to move into the net.”

The No. 2 singles final will feature a pair of region rivals, as well, with Huntington’s CeCe Weiler and Cabell Midland’s Hanley Riner facing off on Saturday morning. Weiler won 6-4, 6-2 over George Washington’s Nupur Bendre while Riner earned a 6-0, 6-2 win over Woodrow Wilson’s Maria Salon.

At No. 1 singles in Class AA-A, Huntington St. Joe’s Audrey Heaberlin meets Parkersburg Catholic’s Marie Discini on the girls side while Ravenswood’s Maximus Hilton meets Grafton’s Emilien Brazilier. All four advanced in straight-set wins.

Huntington St. Joe also has Armaan Karimpour going for a pair of boys titles Saturday. Karimpour is in the No. 2 singles championship against Nitro’s Morgan Mann after a 6-2, 6-3 win Friday afternoon. He will also team with Hayden Cooper for a No. 1 doubles title matchup against Ravenswood.

Mother Nature tried to steal the spotlight from the tournament Friday with three different downpours that wreaked havoc on the scheduling — especially the late doubles matches that were trying to finish — which endured two of the rain delays.

With the late completion of the matches, team standings were not immediately available as of early press time.

The team titles will come down to championships Saturday that is tentatively scheduled for an 8 a.m. start at the Schoenbaum Tennis Courts.