In one day in Sanford, Chenhe Li picked up a new nickname. When he and Max Damm finished their final doubles match to win the Class 1A championship, the Florida High School Athletic Association’s provided trainer dubbed Li, “the Iron Man,” Scott Shields said.
Earlier in the day, Li had a chance to win a singles title for the Falcons only to be forced to retire because of a bout of cramps in his left leg. A few hours later, Li was back on the court with Damm for another championship shot, and this time he won his gold medal.
Li and Damm, the No. 2 seed in the Class 1A doubles tournament, rallied for a 6-7, 6-4, 11-9 win against Michael Mendez and Sebastian Stam, the top-seeded team from Fort Lauderdale Calvary Christian, at Sylvan Lake Park.
“She said she’d never seen someone be able to come back from cramps like that and play another match,” said Shields, the Saint Stephen’s boys head coach. “It was a lot, and it was definitely a team effort there in doubles.”
Li’s marathon week of runs to pair of state-title matches concluded with his biggest marathon yet. After dropping a first-set tiebreak, Li and Damm found themselves down a break during the second before rallying back to force the championship-deciding third set.
And even during that final set, Li and Damm wound up on the brink of defeat. Mendez and Stam gained a 9-7 lead — double match point — with the serve. After Li made a successful return, Damm lunged across the court for a forehand-volley winner to score the first of four consecutive, match-winning points.
“Instead of being tentative and backing down,” Shields said, “Max made a pretty bold move.”
It was that aggressive style the Falcons duo used to breeze their way through the early rounds of the tournament Monday and win Saint Stephen’s first doubles championship since 1988 on Tuesday.
Li, though, also had the singles tournament to worry about. In the championship match, the sophomore, who is ranked as a four-star prospect by TennisRecruiting.net, retired against Weston Sagemont’s Ignacio Martinez while trailing 7-6, 1-0 and fighting cramps, which spread from his quad through his entire left leg.
Li, who goes by Dan, and his teammates set their sights on a state championship of some sort at the start of the season, and with opportunities crumbling away the doubles court was the only place left.
“They were talking about a state championship,” Shields said. “That focus is what pulled them through because it was a tough day for Dan, in particular.”
1988The year Saint Stephen’s boys last won a state doubles championship.
Despite an easy win for No. 1 singles player MaryAnn Rompf, the Saint Stephen’s girls season came to an end with a 4-1 loss to Boca Raton Saint Andrew’s in the 1A semifinals. The Falcons dropped both doubles matches, the No. 3 singles match and the No. 5 singles match to leave Casselberry just shy of its first state championship since 1992.
“They just had players all the way down the line that were a little bit better than us in each division,” girls head coach Lesley Eckert said. “Every point was competitive, but just pulling out each game — they were able to finish each game.”
Rompf, who is signed with Wisconsin, provided the lone bright spot for Saint Stephen’s at Red Bug Lake Park with a 6-1, 6-0 win against Saint Andrew’s Alisa Finger. With three of the Falcons’ losses coming in straight sets, Rompf also managed to win a set as part of Saint Stephen’s No. 1 doubles team. Paired with Laura Perazzolo, the Falcons fell to Finger and Olivia Martinez, 3-6, 7-6, 10-6.
They just had players all the way down the line that were a little bit better than us in each division.
Lesley Eckert, Saint Stephen’s girls head coach
Losing Rompf will leave Saint Stephen’s with a sizable hole next spring, but otherwise the roster could remain intact. Of the four others to play at the state tournament, Perazzolo is the only one who’s is in high school. Sabina Budova, who was part of the lineup all season until she was sidelined by a liver ailment before the Class 1A-Region 5 tournament, is a sophomore.
“It’s a very young team. It’s a strong team,” Eckert said. “They’re only going to get better. They’ll learn from this experience.”