When half of Ashland's No. 1 doubles team went down with mononucleosis only weeks before the 2012 Midwestern League district tournament, head coach Gail Patton had a decision to make.
Hanna Greenberg, then a sophomore, had proven to be a standout doubles player, combining big ground strokes with sharp volleys. But who could replace her partner, Ashley Knecht, then a freshman, whose impressive all-around game would only improve as she gained experience? And when Knecht returned, was it a given that she would simply reunite with Greenberg and the two would pick up where they left off at the pressure-packed district tournament?
Eventually, Patton decided to pair another precocious freshman, Vika O'Brien, with Greenberg, and the two played so well together that the second question answered itself.
"By the time (Knecht) got back just before the district tournament, (O'Brien and Greenberg) were doing so well it seemed crazy to split them up," Patton said. "I think it worked out well."
That's an understatement.
O'Brien and Greenberg qualified for state before sustaining their only stumble in the MWL semifinals, then rolled through the Class 5A state doubles tournament like a wrecking ball, winning four matches in straight sets to claim the first girls doubles championship in AHS history and first of any kind since Andy and Nathan Oas won the boys doubles title in 1978.
"It was surreal," Greenberg said of the 6-3, 6-1 victory over top-seeded Sarah Hawman and Emily Stocker of Hermiston in the championship match. "It was probably, as of now, the best memory and moment of my tennis career."
The "as of now" qualifier may have been thrown in there because all signs point to a Greenberg-O'Brien repeat this week. The duo has only became more dangerous in its second season together and will take a perfect 17-0 2013 record into this year's 5A state doubles tournament, which begins Thursday at the Tualatin Hills Tennis Center in Beaverton. Greenberg and O'Brien, who are seeded No. 1, have a first-round bye and will face either Lydia Ng and Bryce Keicher of Sherwood or Madison Cole and Richelle Mockler-Martens of Cleveland in the second round.
The defending state champs are on the same side of the bracket as the No. 4 seeds from Corvallis, Maysa Shakibnia and Alana Chaplin. Earning the No. 2 seed was Courtney Mostul and Nancy Nguyen of Sherwood, who lost in the state semifinals a year ago.
"It feels pretty good," O'Brien said of entering state as the favorite, "but it also means people are going to pick up their game because they really want to beat us, which means that we have to pick up ours and show them that they have to fight for it."
Also representing the Ashland girls at state will be its No. 2 doubles team, Karly Barnhard and Elana Cooper, and singles players Anne Kim and Knecht.
The Ashland boys will also be well represented at state, as two singles players (Grant Kahn and Mischa Kirby) and one doubles team (Max Burt and Michael Montes) qualified with top-four finishes at districts and will be in action starting Thursday at the Portland Tennis Center.
Patton didn't have many options when Knecht's sickness forced a move last season, but there was reason to believe that Greenberg and O'Brien would be a good match. Greenberg can pound away from the baseline and set up volley opportunities for O'Brien, whose attack-first mentality and solid net game has proven to be the perfect compliment.
After picking up steam at the 2012 state tournament, Greenberg and O'Brien have simply dominated this year, winning every match in straight sets. In their closest match of the season, they overcame a 4-1 deficit in the second set to keep that straight-set streak alive at a tournament in Bend.
"It's just so fun to watch Vika and Hanna play," Patton said, adding that their on-court chemistry has blossomed in their second season together.
"We communicate well — we know where the other person's going to go," O'Brien said. "It works pretty well. It kind of just came instantly."
Though they found immediate success, the road to state last year did include a few bumps, most notably that loss in the Midwestern League district semifinals that may have cost the Greenberg-O'Brien duo the top seed at state. In the end, both felt that that setback may have provided the boost that ultimately put them over the top at state.
This time around, their motivation will be to make history and do something that no other Ashland doubles team — boys or girls — has been able to do: go back-to-back at state.
Both are confident, but are expecting to be pushed to their limit.
"We need to be able to focus match by match because we can be beat with the competition this year," Greenberg said. "It is nerve-racking, but it's also exciting. We're going to have to push ourselves to prove that we deserve it."
Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org