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Lecanto gets a scare before berth in state

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002

LECANTO -- A collective sigh of relief could be heard from the Lecanto players after Friday's 4-3 win over Gainesville Eastside in a Class 2A regional. This one was close.

The Panthers, playing without regular No. 1 Jennifer Rimes, out for unspecified reasons, led 3-1 but lost at No. 3 singles and No. 1 doubles to place everything on the shoulders of their No. 2 doubles team. Ashley Campbell and Nisha Shaw responded with an emotional 7-6 (7-1), 6-4 victory that sends Lecanto to its fifth consecutive state tournament.

"It was really tight," Shreya Rao said. "Everybody really wanted to go to state. This team has been going so long we didn't want it to end this year."

The Panthers' singles wins came from No. 2 Shah, No. 4 Rao and No. 5 Sireesha Bellam. Each won in straight sets. Shah is unbeaten this season, and Bellam has lost just once.

Alyssa Visalli, filling in for Rimes at No. 1, was beaten by Eastside freshman Jennifer Rolle 6-1, 6-0. Visalli played well at times but had no answer for Rolle's forehand. Campbell lost at No. 3 singles in a grueling three-hour match, then turned around and teamed with Shah after a 30-minute breather.

Eastside evened the match after its No. 1 doubles squad defeated Bellam and Rao 6-2, 6-0. Campbell and Shaw won the first set but trailed 4-2 in the second.

"I thought that last match might go to three sets," Bellam said. "That made me extremely nervous. I really wanted to go to state."

Lecanto advanced with a young lineup. The Panthers have three sophomores (Bellam, Campbell and Shah) and one ninth-grader (Rao). Visalli is a senior.

"You're going to see these faces for a while," coach Joan Roberts said.

Lecanto has won six consecutive district titles and 67 of its past 68 regular-season matches. The Panthers were third at state in 2001.

"Last year was a great experience going to state," Shah said. "But hopefully this time we'll have more fun. We want our team to do better than third."

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