Shenandoah and three-time defending champion Knightstown moved to Friday’s championship round of the New Castle boys tennis sectional after narrow victories over opponents in Thursday’s semifinals.

In the first semifinal, the Raiders edged Tri 3-2 and in the second semifinal the Panthers nipped tourney host New Castle 3-2.

Shenandoah vs. Tri

The Titans had just three players available for the match, forfeited both doubles flights, and faced a 0-2 deficit before play even started.

The first flight to conclude was at No. 3 singles, where Tri sophomore Charlie Moffett defeated Shenandoah freshman JT Rogers 6-4, 6-0 to keep his team alive in the tournament.

However, shortly thereafter, Raider senior Clay Conner bested Titan sophomore Caleb Steele 6-2, 6-4 at No. 1 singles to earn the point his team needed to move onto the finals.

“After I had a great record last year at No. 3 singles, I struggled some this year at No. 1,” Conner said after his flight. “I got a little mad at myself, but continued working in practice and want to thank my teammates for helping me get better. I was patient today and waited for him (Steele) to make a mistake or for an opportunity to hit a passing shot.”

The No. 2 singles flight was the longest of the tournament thus far, going the maximum three sets and lasting almost two hours, 50 minutes before it concluded at 7:20 p.m.

In that flight, Tri sophomore Jacob Beckedahl outlasted Shenandoah sophomore Will Abbett 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

Knightstown vs. New Castle

This match between the 18-1 Panthers and 17-5 Trojans was highly anticipated, and a large number of fans from both schools came out to witness it.

Not all of the flights in this match began at the same time because of court availability. The No. 2 singles flight and both doubles flights began first, and the other two singles flights followed a little later.

Both the Panthers and Trojans had a full complement of players to fill all seven spots. To some surprise, all of the flights lasted just two sets.

The first flight to conclude was at No. 2 doubles, where the Knightstown pair of senior Carson Smith and junior Jace Wilkerson upended New Castle’s freshman duo of Leo Underhill and Vincent Farris 6-4, 6-0.

The Panthers grabbed a 2-0 lead in the match a short time later when their No. 1 doubles pair of seniors Connor Pyle and Kyle Johnson defeated the Trojan duo of senior Sam Maddy and sophomore Caden Blackford 6-2, 6-4.

Shortly after that, New Castle kept its hopes alive for a berth in Friday’s championship round when junior Sam Underhill bested Knightstown junior Baylor Hogan 6-3, 6-1 at No. 2 singles to trim the deficit in the match to 2-1.

By this time, darkness had descended upon the courts and the lights had been turned on. All eyes now focused on the remaining two singles flights, which were on adjacent courts for the easier viewing of both.

At No. 3 singles, Panther sophomore Brayden McDaniel battled Trojan senior James Harris. Either Knightstown would claim its third point to win the match or New Castle would pull even at 2-2.

The former occurred, as McDaniel bested Harris 6-3, 6-3 to give the Panthers a 3-1 lead, a victory in the match, and a berth in Friday’s finals.

With some of the suspense in the match now over, attention turned to the last flight at No. 1 singles where New Castle junior Trent Alfrey was taking on Knightstown sophomore Hunter Steimel.

This flight was important to both players, as Alfrey could move to to next week’s singles state tournament with a victory and Steimel, who was assured of playing Friday, could remain in contention for the singles tournament with a win.

The two players battled for almost two hours, past the time when the girls soccer game on nearby Neal Field had concluded, before Alfrey emerged with a 7-6 (8-6), 6-3 victory that raised his record on the season to 22-1.

“He (Steimel) was a tough opponent, he had a good game plan against me, and it was working,” Alfrey remarked after his flight. “I think my consistency won this match for me. I hit some deep balls, kept the ball in play, and waited for him to make a mistake.”

New Castle Head Coach Curt Huntley was happy that Alfrey came through.

“Trent played well against a good opponent,” Huntley said. “In the first set, he got bogged down in a style of play that wasn’t his, but then flipped the switch in the second set.”

As already noted, Alfrey moves on to the state singles tournament which, for him, begins next week in Richmond.

“We knew we’d have to get past New Castle to win the sectional,” Knightstown head Coach Steve Dalton said after his team’s victory. “We’d been pointing to this match all season. We knew that we probably had the advantage in doubles and that singles would be a real battle, and that’s the way it turned out. If we get past Shenandoah tomorrow (Friday), we like our chances with whoever we’ll face in the regional.”

Trojan Coach Huntley was upbeat after the narrow loss.

“The match went about as expected,” Huntley added, “although we would’ve liked to have been the team with the three points. Caden Blackford stepped in for us and played well at No. 1 doubles against a pair of Knightstown players who had played together for four years, and their (Panthers) guy at No. 3 singles played well to give them the win. We lose three seniors who have meant a lot to the program, but most of our players return, the future is bright, and I’m looking forward to it.”