Twisted logic it might appear to be, but the performance of Northants’ 18U girls in just staying up probably matched that of their title-winning male counterparts during an immensely satisfying national champonship weekend for the county.
The 18U action saw the boys romp to almost effortless Group 5B success at Sheffield, beating Norfolk 8-1 on Friday, South of Scotland 9-0 the following day before rounding off with a 7-2 victory over Staffordshire, who had also won on the first two days.
In Group 5A in Norwich, the county girls lost 5-4 to Shropshire, went down 7-2 against Lincolnshire but came up trumps on Sunday with a 5-4 victory over Suffolk to ensure they survived at this level. Yet that only tells half the story.
The most revealing comments came from coaches Mark Taylor and James Haley who both had excellent reasons to be proud of their teams.
Taylor said: “We had a strong team and I think we would have had a great chance of winning Group 4 had we gone up last year, when things just didn’t happen for us.”
Meanwhile, Haley said: “I should think Northants’ girls were as strong favourites to get relegated as the boys were to win their group.
“We had most of our 14U side playing for us and all of our opposition had higher rated players than ours. To stay up and win a match was incredible.
“Of all the county teams I have ever taken away, this one ranks as the most massive of achievements.”
The boys’ march to their title was honed on a first-day win which set the scene.
With James Williams not joining them in the Steel City until Saturday, ironically travelling from university in Norwich, the county boys kicked off with a victory over Norfolk delivered by a singles line-up of Nikki Rae, Jordan Parker, Shakeel Manji, Jack Haworth, Lloyd Read and Sam Wheatley, with the doubles pairings of Parker/Haworth, Rae/Wheatley and Read/Manji.
The only rubber which went astray was the first pair doubles which Haworth/Parker lost in the third set.
The next day was even more emphatic as Taylor explained: “Put it like this. We caught the second half of the lunchtime kick-off of Liverpool v Arsenal back at the hotel and while half the lads went to the cinema, some of us went to watch Sheffield United play Oldham.”
Taylor’s only disappointment of the weekend was seeing The Blades lose 3-2 after backing them to win. But there were to be no dramatic turn around on court for Northants.
He said: “On Saturday, James Williams came in for a singles while Emerson Sekban played doubles at third pair with Shakeel Manji and we only lost 29 games in winning the nine rubbers.
Sunday saw title rivals Staffordshire despatched, with comfortable singles wins for Read, Williams and Manji, a 7-6, 6-4 success for Haworth and a 7-6, 7-5 victory for Parker playing at number two against Henry Parocki which Taylor described as the standout win of the weekend.
Although Rae lost playing at the top of the order, the doubles pairings of Haworth/Read and Rae/Wheatley were successful, although Sekban/Parker lost at number one.
Taylor summed up by saying: “I would say Jordan and Nikki were our best performers even though Lloyd does what he does and won five out of five, as did Shakeel, while James Williams was 3/3.
“We lose four players from this age group now in James, Sam, Nikki and Emerson but have people like Darren Palmer and Joe Tyler coming in.”
The traditional lack of strength in depth in the county girls’ squad was exacerbated when Jemima Potter was forced to pull out through injury, which also meant Rachel Kings could only play in doubles.
An ‘ecstatic’ Alice Johns secured an unlikely first day singles win playing at the head of the rankings against Shropshire, with Haley pointing out: “She was number six for us in this competition last year.”
The Shropshire match was still lost, but other singles wins came from Kate Clayson and Brackley girl Lucy Horbatowski who won her singles on all three days, while there was a doubles win for Clayson/Kings.
On the Saturday, there was a singles win for Horbatowski and a doubles success for Johns/Kings although the other doubles pairs of Evie Harison/Horbatowski and Clayson/Abigail Clifford only lost in tie-break shoot outs.
On Sunday, the key wins came from Horbatowski at three, Clayson at four and Lauren Phillips at six, while Johns/Kings captured their doubles and Harrison/Horbatowski were given a walkover.
Haley said: “The lowest rating of any of our opposition was a 7.2 and our highest was only a 7.1.
“Full credit to people such as Evie who did a job playing at number two, and Jessica Buchanan who came in at the last minute to play.”