Warwickshire juniors were brought firmly back to earth following the first weekend of the County Premier Championships as Cippenham Table Tennis Centre hosted the 2012/13 Premier Divisions first round of matches on the 10/11th November 2012.
In stark contrast to the previous two seasons euphoria, whereby the Bears gained promotion to the top flight in the 2010/11 season and then retained their position amongst the elite the following year, Warwickshire now face an uphill struggle to retain their privileged spot as they lost all three of their weekend fixtures and find themselves bottom of the table as a result.
Despite Warwickshire losing their previous number 1 girl; Sanika Karandiker and number 3 boy Matt Kwok Lunn, the team looked as strong as ever, with newcomers Jesse Kendrick Hill and Emma Kilpatrick, teaming up with the experienced trio of Loz Sweeney, Mathew Outhwaite and Holly Thompson. On paper Warwickshire appeared to have lost the previous years relegation favourites tag, with both Loz Sweeney and Mathew Outhwaite having had meteoric rises up the Senior National ranking list and being positioned 10 & 23 respectively on the Junior list, Warwickshire appeared to be in a relatively strong position prior to the weekends play.
Loz Sweeney opened proceedings for the Bears as they faced Lincolnshire on Saturday afternoon in what proved to be a crucial opportunity missed by Warwickshire to pick up valuable points. Loz however was determined not to let the pressure of being Warwickshire’s new number one effect him and as in previous campaigns, alongside fellow driving force Mathew Outhwaite, he got the bears off to the ideal start beating England number 11 Tom Jarvis 11-6 in the deciding set.
Jesse Kendrick-Hill, making his Premiership debut, then increased the Bears lead, with a wonderful display of skill and guile, to turn around a 2-1 deficit and beat Matt Leete, who was ranked some 17 places higher than himself.
12 year old Emma Kilpatrick making her County debut, then stepped up to the table and could have been forgiven for potentially being a little nervous as she faced England number 24 Olivia Churchill. However, to both Ian Fergusons and Kate Hughes astonishment, Emma played with a freedom reserved for the most experienced of players and her carefree, somewhat nonchalant attitude almost paid off as she pushed her opponent close, losing 11-8, 11-8, 11-7.
Mathew Outhwaite was up next for the bears and despite facing the highest ranked England player on show in the form of England number 7 Adam Harrison, Matt won the opening set 11-6 and looked like causing another of his famous upsets when representing the county and once again justifying his inclusion in the senior squads for the past two seasons. However, Harrison remained calm and showed just why he is ranked so highly as he clawed his way back into the match, winning 3-1 and levelling at 2-2.
Holly Thompson then made her first appearance for the 2012/13 season and like so many times in the past, was incredibly unlucky to lose by the narrowest of margins. Her 3-0 score line to England number 29 Emily Ross, certainly didn’t paint the whole picture as Holly had game points in both the first and second ends, but as in previous years, her lack of match sharpness proved decisive and Lincolnshire took a 3-2 lead.
Jesse was then up for the bears as he tried to once again mirror the heroics he had displayed in his opening match, only this time he faced a far sterner test in the guise of Tom Jarvis. With the score line at 2-2 and with Jesse now into his 10th end of the match, it was perhaps his match fitness that was the only difference between winning and losing. At 4-4 in the decider, Jarvis pulled away and won 7 of the next 8 points, to put Lincolnshire 4-2 up and leave Warwickshire in a precarious position that they had become all too familiar with in recent years.
Could the new fresh faced Emma Kilpatrick turn the odds in Warwickshires favour as she faced what can only be described as a mammoth task, when she found herself 1-0 and 9-7 down against Emily Ross. However once again to the bewilderment of Warwickshire’s coaches and team members, Emma calmly stuck to her game and won the second set 11-9 to what can only be described as rapturous applause. This was perhaps to be the highlight of Emmas weekend as she lost the next two sets 11-8, 11-9, but the manner in which she played, without fear and with a smile on her face, cemented her place in the team and justified her controversial selection at only 12 years of age.
At 5-2 down, it was do or die for the bears and next up were the ‘big guns’; Adam Harrison (England number 7) vs friend and Grantham colleague Loz Sweeney (England number 10). Harrison raced into a 2-0 lead, and at 9-7 in the third looked home and dry, only for Sweeney to show just why he has become one of Warwickshire’s top players (at both junior and senior level) in recent years as he powered through the next four points in what appeared to be a display of anger rather than judgment, clearly frustrated at the previous 2 sets. The 4th was a similarly tight game, with Sweeney once again winning 11-9 and thus taking the match to a deciding set. Sweeney’s hopes appeared dashed though as he found himself 10-5 down, but incredibly, as has become one of his many trademarks, Sweeney decided he wanted to win after all and casually reeled off the next 7 points against one of England’s leading lights, to show just why he himself has become such a dangerous player, capable of ridiculous ‘comebacks’ and remind the senior County selectors of his ability to grind out results when all hope seems lost. Warwickshire were back in the match and at 5-3 a draw was still a possibility.
Holly Thompson, now had the daunting task of taking on Licolnshire’s number 1 girl Olivia Churchill. With some 100 places separating the pair, Holly was more than competitive throughout the match and having taken the second end 11-9, looked as though she was an England top 50 player, belying her true ranking. At 9-7 up in the third end, the impossible seemed possible, but with lady luck firmly on Churchills side, Holly had to endure the heartache of yet another 9-11 loss and with it all confidence appeared to drain from her. Despite Kate Hughes best efforts, Holly’s intensity subsided in the 4th end and Churchill breezed home 11-4, to not only secure a 3-1 win, but also 2 points and the match for Lincolnshire.
The final game saw Mathew Outhwaite cruise to a 3-0 win over Matt Leete, but with the match already over, the impetus had gone from Leete and despite a mature performance from Outhwaite, Warwickshire had lost their first match of the 2012/13 season 6-4.
Unfortunately the opening match of the weekend was to be Warwickshire’s best performance as a team, as Sunday morning brought further disappointment in the form of a 9-1 mauling by Middlesex and with it, Warwickshire’s heaviest defeat for a number of years. Mathew Outhwaite was the only Bears player to find himself on the score sheet, with 3-1 win over Sam Cowan. Loz Sweeney was incredibly unlucky not to beat Gabriel Achampong, as he squandered a number of match points, despite once again demonstrating his remarkable comeback prowess, from 9-1 down, winning 9 points in a row in the 4th end, reaching match point, only to squander it and then lose 13-11. Whilst having the ability to fight back is essential in all sports, Sweeney perhaps learned that essentially if he had played with 100% focus from the start, this was a game he would have and should have won comfortably. Jesse too was competitive in the match, losing 3-1 to both of his opponents. Unfortunately, the girls, found themselves a little outclassed as they both lost to the highly rated Zhana Hall and Hiba Feredj, 3-0 respectively, but once again their performances couldn’t be faulted in terms of effort and the attitude they displayed throughout.
The final game of the weekend saw Warwickshire on the wrong end of another incredibly tight 6-4 result against fellow relegation battlers Yorkshire. Despite braces from Warwickshire’s top two boys, Sweeney and Outhwaite, that was all the Bears could muster in terms of scores on the board, as Jesse Kendrick-Hill was incredibly unlucky not to win one, let alone both of his matches, as he succumbed in 5 sets to Jake McCarthy and 4 to James Hobson. The match against McCarthy was to prove critical as Jesse leading 2-1, looked in control and at 9-9 in the 4th was a whisker away from essentially securing Warwickshire their first point of the weekend. However, it wasn’t to be, as McCarthy snuck the next two points and from that point on never looked like losing. Having gone 5-1 down in the decider, Jesse put everything he had into the match, but ultimately his poor start in the 5th proved crucial as he lost 11-6 and with it, Warwickshire’s hopes of a point slowly faded away. Once again the girls both struggled and never really looked likely of picking up a win against Nicole Finn and Kate Nixon.
Despite their 3 losses, Warwickshire can take some comfort in knowing they have 4 matches still to play, with 2 of their opponents having themselves only gained 2 points each after the first weekend, those being Essex and Glamorgan, whilst Yorkshire also only have 2 points to their name and are not out of danger themselves by any means. However, with Warwickshire number 1 Loz Sweeney yet to confirm his availability, Warwickshire’s fate lies precariously balanced and will be made all the more harder if he is missing from the line up in 2013.
With team selection resting heavily on team Captain Ian Ferguson’s shoulders, some crucial and tough decisions will need to be reached with regards who will be picked for the second weekend as competition for places in both the boys and girls categories is now rife throughout the junior County set up.