KOHALA COAST — Nothing was going to keep Jessalyn Lopez from the state title this year.
Despite nursing an injured wrist, and facing set point twice in the first set during the championship match on Saturday, Lopez was determined to leave the Fairmont Orchid Tennis Center with the trophy held high.
Lopez, a junior at Kihei Charter School, overcame the odds during her three-day run at the HHSAA state tennis tournament. She defeated Waiakea’s Maile Brilhante 7-6 (3), 6-4 in the title match to close out the season with a memorable win.
“It feels great and it is an honor to represent my school,” said Lopez. “It was a tough match, definitely very hot, but I was able to get all my shots back and that is what I wanted to do.”
Lopez was able to use a strong baseline game to keep Brilhante off the net, but she still nearly dropped the first set. After going down 5-3 early in the match, Lopez tied the first set at 5-5.
Brilhante broke Lopez’s serve for the next point and after going up 6-5, had a chance to close out the first set twice.
“Jessalyn has a lot of practice playing in big moments, so when she is down, she doesn’t get too high or two low,” said Kihei head coach Ian Cohen. “She battles back one point at a time and that gave her all the momentum heading into the tiebreaker.”
After fighting off set point and breaking Brilhante’s serve, Lopez dominated the first-set tiebreaker, winning 7-3.
“When I went down 5-3 I told myself that I was hitting with too much pace and I was not being consistent. But when I went down 6-5 I just told myself I better win this game,” Lopez said. “I was able to take the first set and played with more confidence in the second set.”
Lopez was no stranger to a comeback. In the semifinals against Waiakea’s Keilyn Kunimoto, she went down 5-2 in a third set tiebreaker before coming all the way back to claim the victory, advancing to the championship match. Lopez also won in a third set tiebreaker in the quarterfinals.
“Her last three matches have been unbelievable,” Cohen said. “She worked hard and this is an incredible accomplishment.”
Lopez is the first girls state tennis champion from Maui since Baldwin’s Kari Luna won in 1994. And she’s the first from Kihei Charter School, this year being the first season the school is competing as its own entity. Previously, the school’s athletes would compete with Maui High. The school currently has four sports: tennis, paddling, cross country and track and field.
“This is incredible for the school to have a state tennis champion in the first year,” Cohen said. “We had only five girls on the team this season, but we are expecting many more next season.”
The path to a state title is a grueling one, especailly in the mostly cloudless, scorching afternoons on the Kohala Coast during the tournament. The run through the field took a toll on Lopez’s body, nearly derailing her chances to win a title before the title match even started.
“My wrist was hurting in the semifinals. Today when I woke up it was really bad and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to play,” Lopez said. “Once I got on the court I didn’t feel it as much.”
“She did a lot of rehab and taped it up, but at the beginning of the day she was really worried. She had a good warm up with (boys runner up and teammate) Hobbes Wilstead and myself and she got more confident that she could play,” added Cohen. “She really battled out there.”
Lopez, a three-time MIL champion, was knocked out of states in the quarterfinals in her two previous trips. She lost to eventual champion Alyssia Fossorier (Punahou) last year and fell to Konawaena’s Tayvia Yamagata as a freshman.
“She does a lot of work to improve her game during the summer,” Cohen said. “Last summer she went to a tennis academy in California and this summer she is going to Florida for a couple of months. She is never satisfied, even with a win.”
As for Brilhante, there is always next year for the junior, in what could be a repeat of this year’s title clash.
“Maile played tough and aggressive, dictating the points, but the difference was she was not able to capitalize,” said Waiakea head coach Bill Brilhante. “Sometimes you need the breaks to go your way but I am proud of the way she played.”
All Punahou doubles final
After clinching the team championship on Friday, Punahou entered the final day of the state tournament knowing it would claim at least one more state title with two teams playing in the girls doubles championship match.
In a repeat of the ILH semifinals, the duo of Alexis Matsunaga and Megan Flores took down their teammates Jacqueline O’Neill and Cosette Wu 6-3, 6-4 in the quickest match of the day.
“I think it is easier to play your teammates because you know them, you know it is going to be a fair game and both sides are going to give it all they have,” said one-half of the state championship duo, Alexis Matsunaga. “This is my first state championship and, as a senior, I am so happy. I can’t even put it into words. It means a lot and it is satisfying to end my final high school career with a win.”
Matsunaga dominated at the net, while her teammate, sophomore Megan Flores, backed up her partner with her serves and ground strokes.
“This win was so surprising, but in a good way,” Flores said. “This was a good win for us but it definitely puts more pressure on me next year.”