By Dan Gilles
Avon sophomore Nico Mostardi appeared to be in the driver’s seat on May 24 in his do-or-die Division I District consolation semifinal match against Mayfield’s Shouta Fukamachi.
But, after winning his first set, the back spasms that plagued him during May 22nd’s 6-4, 6-7 (2-7), 6-4 quarterfinal loss to Kenston’s Austin Barr flared back up.
Mostardi dropped a tough second set, but gritted his teeth, blocked out the pain and played, arguably, some of the best tennis of his season in the third set. And, as a result of his 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory at Oberlin College’s Don Hunsinger Tennis Courts, Mostardi advanced to next weekend’s Division I State Boys Tennis Tournament at Ohio State for the first time in his young career.
Not only did Mostardi become the first Avon tennis player – boys or girls – to qualify for state tennis, but he also snapped a skid dating back to 2007 for a boys player from a Lorain County high school to qualify for Columbus.
Unfortunately, Mostardi’s back spasms prevented him from competing in the fifth-place match against his friend and rival Vince Anzalone of Willoughby South. Anzalone, who overcame his own emotions and a 4-1 deficit in the third set to eliminate St. Ignatius junior and Avon Lake resident Eric Schuette, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, wound up with the fifth-place medal by injury default.
Mostardi’s back continued to bother him last weekend at the Division I State Tournament. After resting the whole week, Mostardi tried to compete against Springboro senior Zach Berry in his first round match. But, after Berry won the first set 6-3, Mostardi’s back flared up again and he had to retire from the match.
Berry wound up advancing to the state championship match, where he lost to St. Ignatius senior Nathan Griffin, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.
Just the same, nothing could dampen Mostardi’s mood following his big win two weekends ago.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Mostardi said. “To be the first player from my school to accomplish this, along with all the expectations and everything that came in to this season and this tournament, I feel so relaxed right now. I’m just going to go down to state and do my best.
“Honestly, my main goal was to simply qualify for the state tournament, and I accomplished that.”
Mostardi said his back was holding up well during his first set. But midway through the second set, he felt a twinge.
“I took some Advil before my match, and my back felt fine through the first set,” he said. “But at the start of the second set, I go for a backhand and I twist wrong and it just shot through me – pinching, horrible pain. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything.
“I was down 5-2 and I started coming back like I did (Thursday). But, it pinched up again. I just really cringed. It got the best of me that second set, but I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to fight through this if I want to go down to state.’ I just pushed through it as hard as I possibly could and just really went for it.”
Mostardi came out aggressive in that third set and dominated Fukamachi. Even Fukamachi’s request for line judges early in the set did little to alter Mostardi’s focus, who opened up a 5-0 lead before putting the third-seed from the Mayfield Sectional away.
“I was putting a lot more balls in play in the second set, and when you do that, it’s tough to stay in those rallies,” Mostardi said. “You do that, and you start losing focus and it becomes too tough to go after shots. I told myself, ‘I’m not going to go after those shots. I’m just going to hit the ball over the net and let him beat himself.’”
Anzalone, who beat Mostardi in the consolation semifinal at this district last season, lost to Mostardi, 6-3, 6-0, during the regular season. But, with a state berth already clinched and with the adrenaline worn off from his big win, Mostardi and Anzalone agreed to pass on their rubber match.
“I can’t even walk right now,” Mostardi said. “I’m just going to rest. I’m going to have to take three or four days off from practice before I can train hard.”
Anzalone, who has known Mostardi since he was 10, said the difference between fifth and sixth isn’t that much when it comes to state seeding.
“I would have liked to play one more match, but you know what, there’s no point in Nico possibly getting hurt more than he is,” Anzalone said. “Why strain over something when the hard part’s already done? We’re both going to have to play one-seeds at Columbus anyway, and it’s really based on the luck of the draw and not on whether you finished fifth or sixth.
“It’s cool. I just hope Nico heals up. We’ve been having grinds against each other since we were little kids, and I’m sure this would have been another battle. That’s why I like playing him. It’s fun to go up against someone who can test you.”
After Schuette called a couple close line calls out to end the second set, Anzalone lost his cool a bit. The match was delayed before the third set while cooler heads prevailed and line judges were brought in.
The emotions may have played a part in Schuette opening up a 4-1 lead in the third set. But Anzalone fought back with five consecutive wins to clinch his second straight state berth and prevent Schuette from his first.
“It was a good, competitive, emotional match with Vince,” he said. “He just came out on top at the end and played well, especially in that third set. He stopped missing and stopped making stupid mistakes and I started panicking a little bit.
“It fuels me not just for next year, but also for the team state tournament. We have a match against Massillon Jackson on Wednesday, and if we win that, we’ll be playing in Columbus on Sunday.”
On May 22, following a 6-1, 6-0 first round win over Cloverleaf’s Austin Hanna, Mostardi fought through back spasms, which flared up late in his first set loss, and deficits of 4-0 and 5-2 in the second set to push Barr to the brink. In fact, Mostardi was in the process of fighting back from a 5-3 deficit in the third set before Barr put him away after a match that lasted over 90 minutes.
“No one is going to quit in that situation,” Mostardi said. “There’s no point in it. I want to win. I don’t want to lose. I’m going to do everything I can to try to win.
“I started getting back spasms at the end of the first set, serving down 5-4, and I couldn’t hit a serve. The second set, I go down 4-0 in like five minutes. My back was just killing me at that point. But, I dug as deep as I could and somehow pulled it out and kept on fighting.”
Mostardi had to be attended to by a trainer on the changeover following the first set. And, at every changeover, Mostardi lay on his back and stretched to try to alleviate the pain. By the end of the match, Mostardi said his back felt fine.
With Barr needing just one more win to advance to state, Mostardi wasn’t willing to call it a day. He reeled off three consecutive wins to tie the second set at 5 and, after Barr took a 6-5 lead, rallied with a win in deuce to set up a tiebreaker.
Feeding off the momentum of his comeback, Mostardi dominated the tiebreaker, closing out the set with four straight points to set up the all-or-nothing third set.
Mostardi won the first game, but Barr stopped the bleeding and jumped out to a 5-3 lead. Mostardi answered back to win the next game and cut the deficit to 5-4, but it wouldn’t be enough.
“He was a wounded warrior, in every sense of the word,” said Avon head coach Art Gibbs, who then deferred to assistant coach Don “Swede” Svenson for the rest of the comments.
“I think everyone in his camp thought that he should retire due to medical reasons, but he insisted on continuing to play,” Svenson said. “Now, we understand that he was right all along. We saw a very tough match and we saw what kind of guts he had out there. He made a great comeback and he almost pulled it off. Give him credit for that. I’m proud of him.
“(Barr) played a great match as well, and we’re proud of him too. It’s tough to play against somebody who has a medical problem. That gets in your mind sometimes – you figure you should finish the match with ease, but it doesn’t always happen that way. So, it was a great match on both parts.”
Westlake junior Cal Craven won’t be able to make a return trip to state this season. He and doubles partner Aris Jhaveri, a freshman, took Walsh Jesuit’s Gaven Cona and William Smith to three sets, but they wound up on the short end of a 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 first-round score on Thursday.
Division II Canton District: Lake Ridge senior Caleb Mayer ended his high school career as a four-time district qualifier. However, he also wound up going 0-4 at the district level, following a tough 6-3, 6-4 first-round loss to former state qualifier Weston Noall of Gilmour Academy.
Mayer, who went 11-1 during the regular season, was the only Lorain County tennis player competing at the Division II district tournament this season.
“It was a tough match,” said Mayer, who was taking in the action Saturday at Oberlin College. “Unfortunately it wasn’t the result I was hoping for.”
Three other players of local interest – Bay freshman Adam Krueger and Rocky River seniors Mike Ittu and Ryan McDermott – also came up short in their respective state bids on Friday.
Krueger, who beat Mayer for the Rocky River Sectional championship last weekend, fell to Hawken’s Sid Ahuja, 6-0, 6-4. Ahuja wound up becoming a state qualifier, while Noall came up one match short.
Ittu and McDermott upset Canton Central Catholic’s Mason Dailey and Michael Murphy – the Wooster Sectional champs – 6-3, 6-1, in the first round. However, they fell to University School’s David Buchinsky and Paul Gota, 6-0, 6-0, in the quarterfinals, falling just one match short of Columbus.