WALLA WALLA - Two Whitman College tennis heavyweights, Andrew La Cava and Conor Holton-Burke, went toe to toe for what seemed like 15 rounds in Monday's singles final of the USTA/ITA Pacific Northwest Fall Championships on Whitman's outdoor courts.
Both players were still standing at the end of three-hour title bout, even though both had landed and absorbed any number of feathery jabs and hard right hands.
Once the final bell sounded and the score cards totaled, it was La Cava leaving the ring with an epic 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (9-7) triumph.
Few points came easy in the slugfest, but La Cava needed one last remarkable flurry of punches to claim his crown.
After holding serve to even the third set at 6-6, La Cava quickly found himself on the wrong end of 5-1 and 6-2 counts in the tie-breaker.
But the crafty sophomore fought off four match points to square the breaker at 6-6 and then added a fifth straight point to lead 7-6 and earn a match point of his own.
Holton-Burke, a rangy senior and the defending Northwest Conference (NWC) Player of the Year, picked off the next point to send the match back to deuce, only to see La Cava finish the marathon with the next two points.
"As they were battling through the fifth set, it wasn't about who was going to win," Whitman coach and tournament director Jeff Northam said.
"I just didn't want to see either guy lose. It was honestly one of the best college matches I've ever seen."
In winning the regional singles title for a second straight year, La Cava used a service break to break free from a 5-5 deadlock in the first set. He then held serve to take the set at 7-5.
Holton-Burke bounced back to pocket a back-and-forth second set, breaking La Cava at 5-4 to win 6-4.
The deciding third set stayed on serve until La Cava broke Holton-Burke for a 5-4 lead. Holton-Burke broke right back, and both players held serve one more time to reach a 6-6 stalemate and set the stage for the climactic tie-breaker.
The regional tournament, which started Saturday on the Whitman campus and attracted players from all nine NWC schools, resumed Monday morning with the singles semifinals.
Holton-Burke advanced by scrambling past Whitman's Jeff Tolman 6-4, 6-4 in one semifinal while La Cava outpointed Whitman's Sam Sadeghi 6-4, 6-3.
While both La Cava and Holton-Burke were running on fumes by the time their singles final ended late in the afternoon, their day was not over. Both players were still in the hunt for the tournament's doubles championship. La Cava reached the doubles final with Tolman as a partner. They faced Holton-Burke and junior Matt Tesmond.
It took two hours for the doubles dust to settle, but Holton-Burke Tesmond finally donned the doubles crown with a 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (12-10) victory over La Cava and Tolman.
The third set in particular was a sight to behold as neither side was able to break serve on the other, although they certainly gave it the good ol' college try.
With the third set even at two games apiece, Holton-Burke held serve on a game that needed two dozen points to decide.
Later in the third, with Holton-Burke and Tesmond leading 6-5, La Cava found a way to hold serve as he and Tolman staved off a match point to get the game back to deuce.
A few points later, La Cava reached into his bag of tricks for a semi-miraculous return to even the set at 6-6 and send the match to a first-to-seven tie-breaker.
After Tolman and La Cava jumped in front 4-3 in the breaker, Tesmond and Holton-Burke responded with three straight points to earn another match point at 6-4.
But the pendulum continued to swing and Tolman's stellar return made it 6-all. From there, the two sides swapped four more match points as the score deadlocked on points seven, eight, nine and 10.
The tie at 10 proved to be last, however, as Holton-Burke and Tesmond strung together the next two points to claim the trophy.
"The level of play in tonight's match was phenomenal," Whitman tennis coach and tournament director Jeff Northam said. "The returns the guys were hitting, especially in the tie-breaker, were truly amazing.
"I'm so proud of the way our guys competed and conducted themselves today as we finished the tournament."
While not complaining about having his own players on both sides of the net in title bouts, Northam said the circumstance has its drawbacks.
"All of our guys played so well today, starting with the singles semifinals this morning and continuing through the championship matches," he said. "When they play that well and work that hard, it's hard to see any of them lose.
"It almost overshadows the joy of seeing our guys win when it's their own teammates they are beating."
By winning the tournament's singles and doubles titles, La Cava, Holton-Burke and Tesmond advance to play in next month's National Small College Championships in Mobile, Ala.