A year ago, Emily Dunbar lost one match all season and finished second in the Division II state tennis tournament. If she has one defeat at the end of this year, she’ll be a state champ.
That’s the positive spin the Cloverleaf senior is putting on a surprising semifinal loss at the Rocky River D-II Sectional as she heads into play this week at the Medina District at Springside Racquet Club.
Undefeated in her first 23 matches this year and 276-0 in games played, the second-seeded Dunbar (24-1) fell in straight sets to No. 3 seed Nicole Gillinov of Hathaway Brown in the semis at Rocky River and ended up finishing third.
That makes her draw at the Medina District a little more difficult, but Dunbar, a D-I state quarterfinalist as a freshman and sophomore before finishing second in D-II last year, remains undeterred.
“I think it was good,” she said of losing to Gillinov, the younger sister of two-time defending state champ Lauren Gillinov. “Obviously, it was hard to go through, but it always makes you better when you lose. You learn a lot, so I think it was good for me to lose in sectionals, because it will help me later on in districts.”
Dunbar, who is 114-8 in her outstanding high school career, will meet Salem’s Ashton Morris, who finished second at the Boardman Sectional, in first-round play Friday at 9 a.m. at the Medina District. Should she win there, she will likely meet Orange freshman Blessing Nwaozuzu, the Hawken Sectional champion, in the quarterfinals.
Two wins will guarantee Dunbar her fourth straight state tournament berth — a loss in either will end her prep career — and put her in the district semifinals, where she would likely meet Lauren Gillinov. A year ago, Dunbar beat Gillinov in the sectional and district finals and lost to her in three sets in the state championship.
In the Medina D-I District, which starts Thursday at 9 a.m. at Springside, Highland’s Emily Hadler, who placed third at the Medina Sectional, will face Louisville’s Kayla Pukys, who was second at the Canton Sectional, in the first round.
The Wadsworth doubles team of Hannah Jarolim and Ashley Tittle, fourth at the Medina Sectional, will face Canton Sectional champs Hannah Cianciola and Sydney Cianciola of Canfield in the first round.
The top four finishers in singles and doubles advance to state in D-II, but the top six go in D-I. A first-round loss means elimination, but a win there means a D-I state berth is locked up by winning one of the next two matches.
The 17-year-old Dunbar, who has committed to play college tennis at Richmond, is looking no further ahead than her match against Morris.
“I’m just taking it one match at a time and focusing how I know how to,” she said. “You always have pressure going into districts. ... Anything can happen.”
Should Dunbar win her first match and face Nwaozuzu in the quarterfinals, an interesting dynamic will be in play. The freshman travels from Pepper Pike several times a week to take tennis lessons from Dunbar’s father, Keith, at the family’s Lafayette Township home.
“I’ve seen her out on the court sometimes, but I really haven’t watched,” Dunbar said. “I’m sure I’ll ask him (for a scouting report).”
Highland’s Hadler, a freshman who is 24-3 in singles matches, will be facing a returning state qualifier in Pukys. Should she win there, she will likely face Solon Sectional champion Angelica Ross of Riverside in the quarterfinals.
“Emily has a strong work ethic and puts in many hours of practicing and conditioning for match play,” Highland coach Lisa Reynolds said. “She has mental endurance that helps her play multiple matches in a day.
“Emily has a tennis intelligence beyond her 14 years. ... She has learned how to stay in points longer so she can give herself time to figure out her opponent’s weaknesses. This will help her in her opening match.”
Wadsworth’s Jarolim, a junior and returning district doubles qualifier, and Tittle, a senior, will be underdogs in their match against the Cianciola sisters. A year ago, Hannah Cianciola won a match at the state tournament with Ashley Kaleel.
“(Jarolim and Tittle) had a great sectional tournament,” Wadsworth coach Kristy Nichol said of her team, which is 18-8 on the season. “I think they are playing with great confidence right now.”
Dunbar’s confidence was shaken a bit by her sectional loss, but she came back to beat Hathaway Brown’s Maddie Lynch for third place.
“That was good,” she said. “It was tough going out there, but getting through it helped me a lot.”
As long as she places in the top four this weekend, Dunbar will give herself a chance to capture that elusive state title. A year ago, she was two points from victory in the final, but lost the second set and then fell 6-0 in the third.
“That’s obviously the goal,” Dunbar said of winning it all. “You can’t really look at something like, ‘If I don’ win it, it was bad,’ but that’s my goal. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do it.”