After a fantastic season for Team Leicestershire which has seen the county make the Shires League finals for all age groups for the first time, the U14’s made their way to the Aldersley Stadium in Wolverhampton determined to improve on the highest placing so far of 6th by the U16 team!
Luke Hoult, Owen King, Ayush Panchal, Lewis Whyley
Tilly Dale, Evie Pike, Grace Sherwin, Sophie Watson
Having finished 3rd overall in the league from the group stages, the team were hoping to reap the benefit of a draw against one of the lower placed teams and waited with fingers crossed as the matches were read out; Leicestershire were to play….Cheshire! The team broke into wild cheers and dancing – anyone would have thought we had won already!! It was time to settle the nerves and excitement and focus on the job in hand against one of the teams we knew we could beat and overcome the first hurdle to earn a guaranteed top 4 finish.
The team made a flying start with all 4 pairs of Luke & Sophie, Owen & Grace, Ayush & Tilly and Lewis & Evie recording straightforward wins to go into a 4-0 lead. The Cheshire boys fielded a stronger team than their girls and managed to pull back wins against Owen and Lewis but Luke and Ayush both took their games. With the Leicestershire girls proving too strong in all matches for the young Cheshire girls, the score after the singles was 10-2 leaving Team Leics with only a single win needed from the remaining 8 level doubles. While the boys again found the Cheshire lads tough opponents, the girls came through to easily win all 4 of their games for a final overall score:
Leicestershire 15 Cheshire 5
After a short rest and refuel, it was time for the draw for Round 2 and the team had all fingers crossed for another helpful draw…but it wasn’t to be this time. Hampshire it was and the team knew this would be a much bigger hurdle to overcome. However, team spirit was high and after some changes to the starting order by Team Manager Amie, it was time to get started.
In the mixed, Luke & Grace fought hard against Hampshire’s Hillman & Jones but were unable to overcome a very strong pair. Owen & Sophie levelled the score with a 21-16 win against the 2nd pair. Neither Tilly & Ayush nor Lewis & Evie could get past their opponents although Lewis & Evie came very close, only losing narrowly to 19. Going into the singles 1-3 was not the start we had hoped for but the team stayed positive. Singles were predictably tough against a team with strength in depth and only Luke, with a fabulous win against Sam Jones, and Grace were able to win their games.
The score going into the level doubles was now 3-9 to Hampshire who only needed to take 2 of the 8 remaining games for the outright win. Things looked bleak for the green and yellows; however, one thing the Leicestershire lads and lasses are not is quitters but they would need every ounce of their grit and determination to pull this one back!
So the team began to process of reeling Hampshire back in, one game at a time. Luke & Owen won against a very tough Hampshire first pair 21-16 and Ayush & Lewis gave it everything they had to just pip the 2nd pair 21-20. With Luke & Owen winning against the 2nd pair in the reverse levels but the Hampshire top pair being too strong for Ayush & Lewis, the score was now 6-10. The girls would have to win every one of the 4 remaining matches just to level the match! Could they do it?
Hampshire, for some reason, decided to concede their first match due to an injury to one of their 1st pair girls, (a decision they would later regret bitterly) which gave us a much needed 21-0 win. With Evie & Grace absolutely determined to give it their all, knowing that every point might be the difference between winning and losing this rubber, they walked off court 21-8 winners against the Hampshire 2nd pair. The score now 8-10! Sophie & Tilly also beat the 2nd Hampshire girls 21-10: the score 9-10. What had seemed like an almost impossible task at the start of the level doubles now seemed like it just might be possible. All Evie & Grace needed to do was beat Sophie Hillman, one of the top girls of this age group in the UK! By now, all the players and parents were crowded round the last match on court, cheering for their teams (those that could bear to watch anyhow!). The points racked up, Evie & Grace putting everything they had into keeping the shuttle away from Hillman and putting every bit of pressure they could on the weaker Hampshire girl. As Gravie began to hit their stride, they started to pull away from the Hampshire pair earning themselves a match point at 20-16 up. As the shuttle hit the ground on the Hampshire side of the net, the room erupted into wild cheering, the Leicestershire players all hugging each other and their parents. They’d done it! Coming back from 3-9 down they had managed to level the rubber at 10-10.
Now all that was left to do was wait on the dreaded count back. With so many close games during the rubber, it was impossible to call this one. It was obviously very close as the counting and verifying seemed to go on for hours! Eventually the players were called round and the victory was officially awarded to…. Leicestershire!! By just 2 points! The kids and parents went crazy all over again, Amie was now in tears – the team had just earned themselves a top 2 finish by dint of sheer hard work, effort and determination to never say die and never give up!
Leicestershire 10 – Hampshire 10 (Leicestershire win by 2 points)
With just one more rubber left to play to determine if it would be the gold or the silver medal, the Team knew it would be another tough match and indeed, soon the kids discovered it would be Yorkshire. We had beaten the white roses in the group stages already; however the Leicestershire team were missing Eve Durrance today and with Yorkshire fielding a stronger team than previously, we knew it would be difficult to match the 13-7 win from earlier in the season. But with nothing left to lose or prove, the kids huddled around for one last pep talk from Amie and one last chance to draw strength from the team spirit that had buoyed them all up throughout the day.
Onto the final and the kids were determined to leave everything out on the courts in their efforts to win gold for Leicestershire at a Shires Final for the very first time ever. The Yorkshire 1st pair proved too strong for Luke & Grace but Owen & Sophie levelled the score with a 21-17 win against the 2nd pair. Ayush & Tilly lost to a very strong 3rd pair but Lewis & Evie dug deep and played their best ever mixed game to beat their opponents 21-16 and halve the mixed 2-2. Typically Yorkshire are stronger in singles than Leicestershire so every win was now going to matter. Luke dug deep to win a very close encounter 21-19 and while neither Owen nor Ayush could match their opponents, Lewis played the best singles of his life to take his match convincingly 21-11. After a few close recent losses against Katherine Arksey, Sophie dominated today’s match, walking off a 21-17 winner. Having lost to her opponent Grace Sachdeva in every one of their previous 4 meetings, our Grakkers knew that nothing less than her very best would do; after falling behind early in the match, Grace never gave up, coming back strongly in the final stages against her very skilful opponent to snatch the win 21-20! What a time to finally beat your nemesis – the joy on her face showing how much this win meant to her personally as well as for the team! With Tilly also earning an excellent win against a strong Yorkshire girl, only Evie was unable to convert her pressure to defeat her opponent, losing to 17 but working hard to put every point on the board.
With the scoreline 7-5 in Leicestershire’s favour after the singles and with just the level doubles to play, the team knew victory was within reach now. Luke & Owen made the perfect start to win 21-16 with Ayush and an on-fire Lewis also snatching a 21-18 win against the Yorkshire 2nd pair to bring the score to 9-5 and just 2 more wins needed! Although Ayush & Lewis couldn’t hold off the 1st pair, meanwhile Sophie & Tilly just managed to hold on for a 21-20 win to ensure the rubber would at least be drawn! With Luke & Owen on court against the Yorkshire seconds, it was their 21-9 victory which took the score to the all-important figure of 11 wins and the team knew they had done it!! They had won the gold!!! Understandably it was difficult to focus on the remaining games knowing we had already won overall but the final score was recorded as:
Leicestershire 12 – Yorkshire 8
With just the winners’ presentation and photographs left to organise, parents, players and perhaps coach were left looking at each other in various states of shock, elation and disbelief. Although Team Leics had started the day as one of the top 4 teams in the league table, everyone knew what a massive task it was going to be to take on the might of all the very top counties like Surrey, Yorkshire and Hampshire fielding their strongest teams. But with an exemplary determination to work for every single point, positive thinking and a commitment to working tirelessly for the team, they had taken on the rest and proved themselves to be the best! Leicestershire topped the U14 Shires League table for the 2016/17 season, not only a first for this team but also the first time Leicestershire had ever achieved this accolade, in any of the age groups. With the gold medals safely round their necks, the team dispersed for the journey home, with all of them taking away memories of a day they will never forget, the day when they were crowned National champions!
Our very warmest congratulations to all the players and to Team Manager Amie Hoult who has worked so hard to build such a solid and tight-knit team throughout the season!