Stephanie Lin found out Saturday how hard it is to three-peat.
The Lyons Township High School senior became the first badminton player in Illinois history to win three consecutive state singles championships when she came from behind to edge Hinsdale South sophomore Judy Yang 16-21, 21-18, 21-13 at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
Lin is just the fourth girl to win three titles, joining York’s Linda French, Downers Grove South’s Erin Hois and Karishma Kollipara, who won once at Latin and twice for Hinsdale Central.
“We were hoping for that for her but we tried to downplay it,” LTHS coach Sue McClenahan said. “She was tested today. This was definitely the most difficult of the three.”
Indeed, after breezing to three wins on Friday, the top-seeded Lin (43-2) was taken to three sets in two of her three matches Saturday, both of which were rematches from last year’s state tournament.
She beat Downers Grove North senior Kiley Pooler in the quarterfinals for the second straight year and defeated Yang again in the final, but both were straight-set wins last year.
“Today was the fight of my life,” Lin said. “I was terrified. I felt like I had a near-death experience.”
Pooler took the first set from Lin, who rallied to win 18-21, 21-12, 21-15.
“That’s the fifth time we’ve played this season,” Lin said. “She’s incredibly fast and she gets to everything. It’s like she teleports.
“At first I froze up from all the nerves I had, but the coaches really motivated me. During the first break they told me to be more aggressive and I pulled through.”
Lin had an easier time in the semifinals, downing Neuqua Valley freshman Lauren Ho 21-10, 21-13, but that match also featured a lot of long rallies.
“I train with Lauren, so when you train with someone, your shot production is lower,” Lin noted. “For me it was precise shot-making and using more deception with my racquet which was key.”
That set up the championship match everyone was waiting for. The second-seeded Yang (46-4) had dealt Lin one of her two losses, which came when Lin was battling illness during the first week of the season. Lin beat Yang at the New Trier Featherfest in April, but Yang had Lin on the ropes in this match and at one point was six points from avenging last year’s defeat.
“I was down the majority of the [second] game before I started catching up,” said Lin, who trailed 15-12 at one point. “I was a little panicked but I kept thinking to myself, ‘its only three points.’ And my teammates were very supportive.”
The decisive set was tied 8-8 when Lin finally turned the tide, winning 10 straight points.
“I pulled ahead and won several points in a row and when that happens I have the momentum,” Lin said. “A lot of my shots were being read. So I decided that rather than go for winners I would place my shots and want until she made a mistake.”
The strategy worked, as Lin was able to outlast Yang despite sweating bullets in the hot, humid conditions.
“It’s really a testament to her stamina and physical ability, which you really need especially when you’re playing big matches,” McClenahan said. “We asked her to be a little more aggressive. She’s capable of doing that and she needed it because they really kept coming after her.”
But Lin met every challenge. After winning match point, the usually businesslike Lin collapsed in a sweaty heap.
“It was a very emotional moment,” McClenahan said. “She saw the bird hit the floor and then she hit the floor. There were some tears and then she was all smiles on the podium. It was great that she shared it with her teammates.”
Though no other Lion qualified for state, the majority of the team as well as some parents were in the stands to cheer Lin on to her historic accomplishment.
“It’s yet to hit me,” Lin said. “Right after the event I’m excited and then when I have some down time it falls. But if you had told me when I was a freshman this would be me in badminton, I would not have believed you.”
Lin, who compiled a 116-10 record during her three-year reign, is headed to Cornell, where she plans to major in bioengineering. She scored a perfect 36 on her ACT and ranks in the top 1 percent of her class.
Now she is part of the 1 percent in badminton.
“I could not be any happier,” Lin said. “It was the best way to end my senior year.”