ALBRIGHT: Hurricane’s Lexi Smolder, Cabell Midland’s Hanley Riner fighting for the No. 1 girls singles’ state title? Duh.

It began with a marathon and continued with a bang.

Hurricane’s Lexi Smolder and Cabell Midland’s Hanley Riner renewed their postseason rivalry Wednesday with a 9-8 (4) tiebreaking barnburner filled with all the excitement one could possibly want.

Riner, who anxiously awaited this match since she fell to Smolder one week ago at the Mountain State Athletic Conference tournament 9-8 (5), delivered an outstanding performance including some incredible rallies, backbreaking shots, and some “Come On” shouts that scared away the birds.

Not surprising anyone, Smolder matched her shot for shot, rally for rally, and shout for shout.

“It was a really competitive match,” she said.

And how?

From the moment 9 a.m. ticked onto the clock, everything became about beating one and other’s good friend anyway possible. Harner struck first for the early 1-0 lead, but then everything settled in and everyone buckled down for the long haul.

“You kind of get a little nervous but you really just have to keep your composure and stay in the match. Both of us are really consistent players and you have to stay focused,” Smolder said.

“You know you have to pick it up a little more and she doesn’t stop fighting,” Riner said.

Naturally, that’s exactly what happened. Little daylight, figuratively and literally, separated the players as no one managed to go up by more than one game. Were there threats once in a while? Sure.

But nothing ever came of them as the girls battled to a 7-7 tie after 14 games.

Shades of the MSAC final? Oh yeah.

But it only gets better.

Promptly following Riner’s ascent to within one game of the championship, guess what happens? If you said Smolder answers right back, you were right. Everything stood tied up at 8-8.

Neither flinched in the tiebreaker and neither gave in until the Riner finally raised her hands.

“We both played really well,” Smolder said.

So, what’s next? Well, hopefully the fates align and these two meet again Saturday for the Class AAA state championship. It really seems like the only possible outcome for Part V of what’s quickly becoming perhaps the best rivalry in the state since Huntington’s Ava Radcliffe vs. Spring Valley’s Katie Swann.

Call it insane. Say the rest of the state has a chance. Throw out anyone else you want.

There’s no better ending to this season than Riner v. Smolder at Schoenbaum Tennis Courts in Kanawha City. The two best players in the state fighting for the top prize in the state? Sounds awesome.

Of course, it isn’t just enough to make such a bold claim without backing it up. Considering the following facts though may sway some doubting minds.

For starters, they hit together and know each other’s game perfectly. “There is no sneaking anything by either one,” Riner said. “We do have games we like to play. I am very defensive and she is very offensive. It clashes and we know how to handle each other.”

Not to mention, once they get going, the fans get going and before you know it the atmosphere gets “intense,” according to Riner. Fans are shouting, the girls are yelling, and the shots and temperature of the match rise by about 1,000 degrees, figuratively speaking.

“Normally our matches just go back and forth,” Smolder said.

And that isn’t all.

One more secret goes into the sauce.

“We train together every day and hit almost every day together and that makes our matches really competitive,” Riner said.

Let’s hope the state final comes out exactly the same way. And I mean exactly the same way. Same players, same score, same passion.

Could someone take a stand?

Sure, but the list isn’t long – maybe just one player after Morgantown’s Emme McKnight tore her ACL earlier in the year, and that might be pushing it. “Huntington’s CeCe Weiler could,” Riner said.

Dig deeper though and you discover what the two girls really think about the chances for the three-match being for all the marbles.

“I would agree, that definitely should happen,” Riner said. “We will see what happens. But it will probably be us.”

“I would not be shocked,” Smolder said. “I would not be shocked at all.”

Contact Joe Albright at jalbright@newsandsentinel.com.


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