By Kyle Daubs

Some call it using your past experiences to make you better for the future. 

Tejas Zala called it mortifying. 

Last year, Zala had a legitimate shot to make the state tournament in singles competition, but a cramp forced him to stop sectional play, where he was eliminated. It prompted a new mindset as he prepared for each match. 

“The cramp I experienced last year was mortifying to put in words as it was the first injury during a match I have ever experienced at the time,” said Zala. “This year, because of that experience, I made sure to get enough sleep and eat before games. I also made it a goal to hydrate and cool off during changeovers. It defiantly made me a more patient player, and, whenever I’m entering the court, I make sure I’m physically ready.”

This year, Zala played at No. 1 singles for the Green Wave, but his bread and butter has been with his doubles teammate Ethan Bahney, who together captured the IHSA Sectional Championship and is advancing to the Class 1A tennis championships. 

The doubles team is 22-3 on the year and was a perfect 4-0 at the Centralia Sectional. 

“They played great, winning four matches without giving up a set,” said Mattoon coach Joey Boyer. “They had incredible support from their teammates and family. We have always had each other’s backs and I couldn’t be more proud of the guys. Shout out to Craig Henness for helping coach these guys to a championship.”

Zala and Bahney have been hitting balls together since their freshman year. Throughout the years, the two have made ways to develop their chemistry on the court. 

“We would spend hours and hours out at Lytle practicing and improving to make ourselves better,” said Bahney. “I think all that time has really made it effortless to communicate on the court.”

Zala remembers how far Bahney has developed. While Zala was playing in the top-6 during the earlier part of his career, Barney was near the bottom on the team roster. 

“I picked up on his tendencies and we both got a feel for each other’s game,” said Zala. “Since we played so many sets against each other, Ethan has developed a playstyle to counter mine. I am a base-liner, and Ethan, as a result, developed his volleying to surpass me in that part of the game. In our matches, it leads to a great baseline and volley-duo. Not only that but having different strengths allows us to coach each other on parts of our game that are more unfamiliar with.”

Now, the two look to move through the state championships. Zala and Bahney are set to play Erik Hermansson and Erik Sarabia of Woodstock (North) High School. Bahney is hopeful that the team can pull off the first-round win to knock off one goal on the season right away. 

“To be honest, getting just one win would satisfy me,” said Bahney. “Obviously, I want to take it as far as possible, but just knowing that I can keep up with the best teams in Illinois is a major achievement for me.”

The tandem was given the No. 16 seed, but Zala believes the duo can play above their ranking. 

“Our goal at state is to get as far as humanly possible,” said Zala. “With the amount of work we dedicated to this sport over the last few years I feel good about our chances. We have the 16th seed, but I believe we are so much more. Ethan showed a willingness to play on the most humid-sweltering days and the chilliest snowing days even when it wasn’t necessary. With this passion, I’m sure we can do some work, and even if we don’t get far I’m hoping we will have played our best tennis.”

Bahney shared that sentiment, citing the twosome’s competitiveness as the main factor, but also looking at how much work they have done together the past four years. 

“I think the biggest reason is that Tejas and I have a sheer want to win,” said Bahney. “Every hour spent on court, every ball hit, every win and loss has taught me something. I think our ability to learn from our successes and failures is the reason we’re where we are today. I think our passion and pure love for tennis makes it easier for us to deal with any challenges because we know it’s just part of the game.”

Zala said that was paramount even when the team went undefeated at the Sectional. 

Now, they can use it at state. 

“While we have moments where we felt unstoppable on the court we have even more days where we are making mistakes left and right,” said Zala.”I think our dominance lies in our attitude when going on the court. We always say whether we are (winning) 5-0, 40-0, or (losing) 0-5 0-40 to give the maximum effort possible. During the championship match for sectionals, we were playing poorly and down 1-4 in the first set. Usually in this circumstance, I would imagine most teams would be losing mentally, but Ethan and I managed to take the first set and, later, the second for the comeback win. I think this attitude is the main contributor to our success.”