THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo
Connor Majdalani watched the match from up close and then again on TV because it was so engaging.
His St. John's Jesuit tennis teammate, Evan Bechtel, was locked into a fierce battle at No. 1 singles in a match at Shadow Valley that would determine the outcome of the Titans' first match of the season.
A three-time state qualifier, Bechtel was coming off of a productive offseason in which he did everything from improving his fitness to improving his Midwest ranking, to recording a significant win locally over a Toledo tennis icon.
To Majdalani, Bechtel proved he had taken his game to a new level that March 29 afternoon against Cincinnati Sycamore.
Needing a win to secure a team victory, Bechtel battled back from an opening-set loss to prevail, 3-6, 7-6, 7-5, over state qualifier Adam Reinhart in a match that generated a lot of buzz among the area tennis community. The previous time those two played, in June, it wasn't close. Bechtel won just one game in a blowout loss. He has since become a different player, and Majdalani sensed it.
"He really poured his whole heart into that match," Majdalani, one of three seniors, said. "I don't know if he did it for a team thing, or just for his pride, but I thought that was a big leap in his development."
Bechtel has solidified himself as a contender to win the Division I state singles championship later this month, devouring high-level players all spring, and doing it while dealing with the effects of a prolonged virus.
As for the Titans, they've lost just once -- when Bechtel was out sick -- and they could be ready to claim a state team championship that has narrowly eluded them each of the past six years.
Jim Davis coaches 54 players between St. John's varsity and junior varsity teams, and another 17 when you include seventh and eighth-graders. The seventh-year Titans coach, who is a managing partner at Shadow Valley, knows them all by name.
"I couldn't recite them to you, but they're all in my phone," Davis said.
Davis gives a nod to his assistants Justin Swiger and Scott Zura for helping build the preeminent tennis power in northwest Ohio.
Over the years, Davis' teams are an astounding 165-7, with six of the seven losses coming in either the semifinals or the finals of the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association state team championship. The one exception came this season when the fourth-ranked Titans, minus Bechtel, fell 3-2 to No. 2 Upper Arlington.
St. John's, who will play Findlay Thursday in a sectional final, have been state runner-ups four times under Davis, finishing third twice. No area team has won the tournament since St. Francis in 2002.
"I think we've got a good chance of winning states," senior Ryan Jorgensen said. "But you never really know what's going to happen."
Jorgensen knows that all too well.
Turn for the worse
Bechtel and Jorgensen, both long and thin and each about 6-foot-2, teamed up to play doubles for the postseason last spring.
St. John's Nos. 1 and 2 singles players advanced all the way to the state semifinals and finished third. A day later, they were back playing singles when the Titans faced Upper Arlington in the OTCA state final.
St. John's was looking to break through and finally win a state championship, and it may have had Jorgensen not broken his ankle in the third set. He continued to play, with the score tied 1-1, and even finished the match.
"But I couldn't really move," he said.
Jorgensen is healed up physically and "playing the best tennis of my life" due in large part to a change in attitude. No longer is he one to get frustrated after a bad shot, Jorgensen says he's become more controlled.
"Now, I'm not getting emotional on the court," he said. "I'm just staying composed and focused and not letting anything bother me."
Jorgensen and Bechtel will not team up again for the postseason, instead both opting to give it a go in the singles draw.
Bechtel may not be the odds-on favorite to win a state title, but in the opinion of his coach, "I would say he's definitely a contender."
No player from the area has won a D-I state boys championship since Perrysburg's Bob Wellstein in 1997, and no St. John's player has done it since Erick Iskersky won back-to-back titles in 1975 and '76.
Bechtel has a shot to end both droughts but several challenges stand in the way. He's currently ranked 18th in the Midwest among the 18-and-under, and is behind two Ohio Division I competitors in West Chester Lakota East's Zachary Mueck (third), and Westlake's Colton Buffington (13th). Buffington dealt Bechtel his only loss of the season -- 6-7, 7-6, 10-7.
Aside from his win over Sycamore's Reinhart, Bechtel (11-1) has beaten two other state qualifiers -- Perrysburg's excellent sophomore, Jeffrey Schorsch, 6-1, 6-3, and University of Toledo recruit Garrett Cona of Walsh Jesuit, 6-3, 6-3. In August, Bechtel denied 11-time City of Toledo singles champion Todd Dominiak of another title in a straight set quarterfinal victory.
Davis said Bechtel's progression is most noticeable in three areas. He's become more offensive, his serve is more aggressive, and his volleys "have gotten so much better."
"My focus is a lot more intense than it was last year," said Bechtel, the son of Rick Bechtel, the 1982 Mid-American Conference runner-up at No. 1 singles for Bowling Green.
A two-time state qualifier early in his career at Ottawa Hills, Bechtel is leaning toward turning down several college scholarship offers to train at the prestigious IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Southern Methodist, Cornell, Michigan State, and Alabama have all expressed interest in the honor student, but given that Bechtel won't turn 18 until later this month, he'd prefer to begin college in the fall of 2012 to better ensure he won't be lacking physically.
But first things first.
Only two singles players and two doubles teams will advance to state from the Bowling Green district. It means that of Bechtel, Jorgensen, Schorsch, and Lexington state-qualifier Nicky Wong, two won't make it.
Bechtel and Jorgensen could do the field a favor by teaming up, but that idea ceased being an option after last season.
"I thought last year if I go down and win state in doubles, that's really cool," Bechtel said. "That's what I wanted to do. But for my senior year, I don't want to pass up the opportunity, if I'm ranked third in the state, of winning the state individually."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com or 419-724-6160.