BURLINGTON — About 15 minutes after their season came to an end on a damp Saturday evening, one could notice many of the East Surry tennis players starting to smile again.
It didn’t take the Lady Cardinals long to realize that coming up short in a state championship match no one had picked them to reach didn’t take away any of their remarkable accomplishments.
Defending state champion Raleigh Charter, which hasn’t lost in two years, walked away with its second straight NCHSAA 1A state dual-team tennis title. But there was plenty for East Surry to be proud of, as well.
The Lady Cardinals had to shove aside the last two 1A state finalists just to win the Northwest 1A Conference title. During the regular season and the first three rounds of the state playoffs, East Surry defeated four of the state’s top eight 1A teams, twice avenged the only loss they’d suffered to a 1A opponent, swept their conference’s individual singles and doubles titles, sent a doubles team to the state semifinals, and reached the dual-team state finals for the first time in school history.
“We are very, very proud of what we’ve done,” said East Surry coach Lyndsey Haywood. “This was a sweet place to be, even if we couldn’t come out victorious today.”
And did we mention that they achieved all this while enduring a season where they had three different head coaches?
“I never dreamed that I would be standing at the state championship when I took over the team in late August,” said Haywood, the former East Surry coach who stepped in and guided the Lady Cardinals for the rest of the season. “I was their third coach this season, and I’m glad I did it. It was a very fun season. We exceeded a lot of people’s expectations.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I took over, I just knew they were really good. I’d heard good things from previous coaches. I knew they could go far, and they succeeded in doing so.”
The final score of the match was 5-2 in favor of the Phoenix, who ended the 2017 season with a perfect 15-0 record. Two doubles matches were still being contested when Raleigh Charter earned its fifth point by winning the No. 2 doubles.
The Lady Cardinals, who finished the season at 18-4, had hoped to earn at least a 3-3 split in the singles matches and then better the Phoenix in the doubles. They very nearly achieved their first goal.
The Burlington Tennis Center has 12 courts, and both the 1A and 3A championships were being contested Saturday morning. Raleigh Charter was playing on the same courts that it won the 2016 crown on, and earned the same result in the singles that it had then.
A few of the matches were one-sided, while one of the others ultimately turned momentum in the Phoenix’ favor.
On the west end of the complex, the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 singles matches ended before any of the others did. Raleigh Charter standout Camryn McClure, who has won a regional and reached one state individual semifinal and one final in her three seasons on the team, got her team off to a good start with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Haley Jennelle. McClure would eventually take the MVP award for the state finals.
“I asked Haley who the best person she played all year was, and she said it was (McClure), without a doubt. She was good,” said Haywood.
However, the Phoenix has just one McClure, and the other two top-half matches went to the Lady Cardinals. Northwest Conference champ Abigail Martin strutted her stuff in a decisive 6-1, 6-3 win over Blair King at No. 2, and Sarah Mann claimed a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Emma Rowe at about the same time. When the two East Surry players came off the courts, they did so to applause from the Cardinals’ fan section, and had staked their team to a 2-1 lead.
Both Martin and Mann completed the 2017 season undefeated in dual-team singles action.
However, two of the singles matches on the east side were nearly over as well, and things weren’t going well for the team in red.
The No. 4 singles match had never been close, and ended almost as soon as all of the fans had moved to the other side. Raleigh Charter’s Vedika Birla was stronger than she’d been a year earlier, and lost just one game against East Surry’s Carson Payne. At fifth singles, RCH’s Claire White had a dogfight with the Lady Cardinals’ Haley Gilley in her opening set, but then took over the match and prevailed 6-4, 6-0. With just the No. 6 still on the court, the Phoenix now led 3-2.
Raleigh Charter’s Addison Furr and East’s Daphne Dotson were about as evenly matched as they could be, and their match exhibited two dramatic momentum swings, the last of which unfortunately went in Furr’s favor and led her to the victory.
Furr won four of the first five games, but then Dotson caught fire, earning two breaks and winning set one. She stayed hot as the players went to set two, and right about the time that White was finishing up her win on the adjacent court, a confident Dotson changed the score to reflect a 5-2 lead in set two. She had won two games in a row, 10 out of 12, and needed just one more game to take the match and split the singles for her team.
She never got it, but it would be unfair to say she choked. Furr battled through the next game, finally winning at 40-30, then held serve without losing a point to make it 5-4. Playing outstanding tennis throughout the rally, the Phoenix sophomore won four straight points after losing the first, and scored a second break to tie the set at 5. Furr was back on serve for the next game, in which Dotson hit two straight strong shots to recover from 15-40 to deuce, but couldn’t complete the rally and break back.
By this time, momentum had taken its second 180-degree shift and was with the Phoenix player. She broke Dotson a third time to take the set, 7-5. She remained in the ascendant through the match tiebreaker and won it 10-4, claiming a 4-6, 7-5, 1-0 (10-4) victory.
Now the odds against the Lady Cardinals were even longer. As it played out, it was unlikely East would have taken even two of the three doubles, but everyone understood going in that a sweep was very unlikely, because of McClure’s presence. Making matters worse, the standout actually plays at No. 2 doubles for the Phoenix this season, because she teams up with White, her team’s No. 5 singles seed. King and Rowe, the Phoenix’ Nos. 2 and 3 singles players, are longtime doubles partners and have a lower total singles seed. By rule, they have to play No. 1, which they do well enough to have made the state quarterfinals last week. On top of all that, the hot-handed Birla is part of Raleigh Charter’s No. 3 duo.
The doubles matches were delayed for about 20 minutes while officials dried out the courts from some light drizzle that had come down. When they began, things went as one might have imagined. The Nos. 1 and 3 matches were competitive, especially the highly entertaining No. 1 match that pitted two qualifiers from the individual doubles tournament. But McClure, teamed with White, was unstoppable. McClure and White won all 10 games of the match, and when they scored match point, it was over…
…at least until next fall. Jennelle and Dotson are the only seniors on the Lady Cardinals. Saturday was Raleigh Charter’s day, but East Surry tennis won’t be going away.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.