June 20, 2023 // Local

Saint Joseph High School Girls Tennis, Bellia Finish as State Runner-Ups for Team, Individual Titles

Although a third straight trip to the Girls Tennis State Finals for Saint Joseph High School ended the same way the first two did — with a defeat at the hands of the Carmel Greyhounds — it helped cement the Indians as one of the premier programs in the state.

In a battle of hardcourt heavyweights, Carmel outlasted Saint Joseph 3-2 in the IHSAA State Championship match at Center Grove High School in Greenwood on Saturday, June 3. Straight-set victories by Molly Bellia at No. 1 singles and Anni Amalnathan at No. 3 singles helped the Indians offset losses at both doubles spots, setting up a winner-take-all matchup at No. 2 singles. Despite winning the first set and holding a 3-0 advantage in the second, Saint Joseph’s Ashi Amalnathan fell to Carmel’s Elyse Nelson in three sets (5-7, 6-3, 6-4) to give the Greyhounds the title.

Photos Provided by Saint Joseph High School Athletic Director Stephen Anthony
The Saint Joseph High School Girls Tennis team poses for a photo after falling 3-2 to Carmel in the IHSAA State Championship match at Center Grove High School in Greenwood on Saturday, June 3.

“It was a great season,” reflected Indians head coach Bill Mountford, whose team endured a “crazy” travel schedule facing elite opponents all year. “I think the experience of playing tough competition and traveling is good for the team to experience, and having people enjoy the long van rides and the conversations helped us gel as a team. You’ll remember those things much longer than you’re going to remember the different matches.”

A return trip to state looked anything but certain when the season started. Bellia, Saint Joseph’s top player who won an individual state singles title two years ago as a freshman, began the spring sidelined with stress fractures in her feet. The Indians were forced to shift their lineup for the first several weeks of the season and struggled to a 2-3 start.

Saint Joseph High School Indians junior Molly Bellia, center, finished as State Runner-Up for the individual singles title.

“When she was out with two stress fractures, the idea that she would make it back and go undefeated and make it to the final match at State — I would not have predicted that,” said Mountford. “It’s a real testament to her work, her rehab, and how good of a player she is.”

“I really didn’t know what was going to happen,” Bellia admitted of her injury. “It definitely gave me a heightened appreciation for the sport and the opportunity to play with my team.”

After Bellia’s return, the Indians found their groove and plowed through their competition, highlighted by a 3-2 victory over top-ranked Carmel on the Greyhounds’ home court on Friday, May 12. Despite their #1 ranking entering postseason play and undefeated record with Bellia on the court, Mountford and company knew they’d likely have to top Carmel again to win a state title. “Yes, we did beat them, and I’d rather play them a second time having beaten them already,” said Mountford. “But until you take down the defending champs in the tournament, you’re not the favorite.”

Saint Joseph swept its way into the State Finals, posting 5-0 wins against every opponent in the sectional, regional, and semi-state rounds of the tournament. The Indians then had to knock off a pair of undefeated teams, 21-0 Jasper in the quarterfinals and 27-0 Franklin Community in the semifinals, to advance to the championship match.

Against Carmel (25-2), Saint Joseph (19-4) leaned heavily on Bellia and the Amalnathan sisters, who had all been victorious during their regular-season meeting and had combined for only three losses the entire season. Bellia pulled away from Nora Perkins for a 7-5, 6-1 win, while Anni Amalnathan notched a 6-2, 7-6 decision over Grace Kim. All eyes turned to Ashi Amalnathan and Nelson, whose showdown would determine the state champion. When Nelson raised her game to force a third set, Ashi began feeling the effects of the heat and a depleted energy level.

“We play matches throughout season in 55 degrees and cool weather,” explained Mountford. “Then you get to the State Finals, and it’s three matches in 24 hours in 90-degree heat — three tough matches against quality opponents — and that was definitely a factor. We do our best to condition and be prepared, but it’s difficult to simulate.”

As Nelson claimed the victory and the Greyhounds began to celebrate, Bellia was quick to console her downtrodden teammate.

“She was obviously upset, but I reminded her that no one is mad at her and that she was more important as a person than any result,” said Bellia of her conversation with Ashi. “It was probably hard for her to hear that at the time, but it was the truth.”

Despite the loss, Mountford and company have plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The Indians will return their top four players next year, and they’ll have plenty of motivation to finish the job and bring home the championship, which Bellia said is “definitely the goal.” In addition, Saint Joseph has now reached the State Finals in six of the last seven tournaments, trailing only Carmel’s 14 straight appearances that have netted the Greyhounds 10 state titles. Needless to say, Mountford has helped steer the program to a level of sustained success.

“We take a lot of pride in that,” Mountford said of the program’s success. “I would love to tell you it’s me as a coach, but it’s the players. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had a string of great players come to Saint Joe, and they’ve worked hard on their tennis games before they came here. I do my best to try to put them in the right places to be successful, but I’d be lying if I told you that it was me.”

One of those great players knew her season wasn’t over, even after the Indians came up short in the championship match. By virtue of her unblemished tournament record, Bellia advanced to the individual State Finals on Saturday, June 10, where she would vie for her second singles title in three years. She earned a hard-fought quarterfinal win over Lawrence North’s Isabelle May, surviving a 7-6, 5-7, 6-2 marathon, before quickly dispatching Park Tudor’s Caitlin Van Winkle in straight sets to reach the title match. That’s where Bellia (21-0) would meet Columbus North’s Kathryn Wilson (29-0) in a battle of unbeatens.

“In the first set, I didn’t play as well as I wanted to,” said Bellia, who would drop the first four games and watch Wilson breeze to a 6-2 victory. “But I’ve been in many matches like this before, and I know that just because you lose the first set, the match is not over. I had to reset and raise my game in the second set.”

Bellia did just that, rebounding with a 6-4 victory to force a third and deciding set. It’s this ability to rise to the challenge that most impresses Mountford about his star junior.

“In terms of tennis, there are two things that really make Molly special,” said Mountford. “One is a technical thing — the way she hits the ball is different than most other kids you see. She has a topspin that causes the ball to drop quickly and makes it a difficult ball to handle. But most importantly, she is a gamer. She has that unique ability to raise her game at the appropriate time to answer the challenge. She is a great competitor.”

Bellia built a 2-0 lead in the third set before Wilson ripped off five straight games to seize control, claiming both the set (6-4) and the state singles championship.

“In the third set, Kathryn played really awesome,” said Bellia. “The combination of attacking with her forehand and not missing at all was a little too much for me. But I don’t have any regrets, because I know I gave it one hundred percent.”

Bellia truly has no reason to hang her head after amassing a 72-3 record through her junior season and advancing to the individual State Finals all three years. She credits her faith in helping her stay grounded.

“My coaches and I pray before every match I play, and it helps put in perspective how tennis fits in,” said Bellia. “After losing a tough match, I think the most important thing is that I carry myself well and know that there are much more important things in life.”

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