DENVER | Improbable.
If a word could describe the Class 5A No. 3 doubles state championship won by Regis Jesuit’s Marie Manassee and Grace Neff that would be it.
It’s how Raiders coach Kollman Gearhart described it and neither player disagreed.
“We’re both in shock,” Neff said shortly after she and Manassee left the court jubilant after a 6-2, 2-6, 6-1 win over Fort Collins’ Aurora Slaughter and Sunny Taylor in the No. 3 doubles final.
“We’ve played together for two years now and we just never thought this was going to happen,” Neff continued.
Added Manassee: “We always think of ourselves as underdogs. The other teams that get on the court with us probably think they are going to beat us, but we’re not going to let them.”
Not only was Neff and Manassee’s state title improbable, it was also historic.
The Raiders haven’t had a singles player or doubles team win a state championship since the program moved up to 5A beginning in the 2013 season. The last Regis Jesuit state winners came in 4A in 2011 when Kate Carroll claimed the No. 3 singles title and Kirbi Brisch and Megan Harrison won No. 1 doubles.
Neff and Manassee took a huge leap forward from the 2017 season, when they played together at No. 4 doubles and lost both of their matches at the state tournament.
But they both showed up for every practice and played in every match during the 2018 season — which Kollman made note of — though they didn’t play together the whole season because of a lot of mixing and matching.
Neff and Manasee ended up back together for the stretch run of the season and cruised to the Region 7 championship in Grand Junction to earn their way into the state tournament.
“We decided to put them back together and slowly but surely, the wheels kept turning and turning for them,” Gearhart said.
The duo hit their full stride at the state tournament, though they took about as lengthy a route to the title as they could.
Neff and Manassee ended the first day of the tournament with 7-5, 7-5 win over Poudre’s Jillian Jesser and Emma Kirby, then opened the second day of the abbreviated tournament — which was folded from three days to two to avoid forecasted weather on the final day — with a tremendous 7-5, 7-6 (7) victory over Cherry Creek’s Sydney Haith and Lexie Fisher.
After a few hours’ respite, the duo was back on the court against Slaughter and Taylor, who prevented an all-Aurora championship when they beat Grandview’s Mia Nguyen and Felicia Tay in a third-set tiebreaker in the semifinals.
Neff and Manassee had lost to Nguyen and Tay during the season, but didn’t let that affect their approach to playing the Fort Collins duo.
“We lost to Grandview, but we were trying not to think about who beat who and focus on what we could do and how we could win,” Neff said.
The way the Raiders won turned out to be strong returns and well-placed groundstrokes, which helped them overcome a lot of struggles with their first serves.
Gearhart also noted that the new coaching rule that debuted this season — which allows coaches to talk to players during the match instead of only on changeovers — helped keep the Regis Jesuit duo on track.
“They exceeded expectations,” Gearhart said. “We’re always excited just to get lines into state, but we never once talked to these girls about winning a title. They wanted it and when they want it and I get to help hold onto the handlebars and help facilitate it as best as I can with coaching, that’s great.”
Manassee said the underdog reputation is now a thing of the past.
“It gives us a good reputation,” she said. “It makes us excited for another season.”
Though it had no other placers — the No. 2 team of Lauren Markel and Kaedyn Mingle fell a win shy of playing for third — Regis Jesuit finished with 15 points to tie for sixth place.
Grandview scored eight points to tie for 14th, led by Nguyen and Tay, who finished in fourth place at No. 3 doubles.
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Sentinel Prep Sports
Full team scores, championship & third-place match results for 5A state tournament, here