ELKIN — From wild-card playoff qualifier to Western Regional finalist.
Mount Airy’s tennis team was confident it would make the 1A state dual-team playoffs after a regular season in which it lost only to a 4A team and two close matches to league rival Bishop McGuinness, but the Granite Bears still had to wait out the announcements of the wild card teams on April 30 to ensure their participation in the postseason.
Once they got into the field, they’ve let their tennis do the talking, and now Mount Airy is just one victory away from a trip to the state championship match.
The Bears earned their spot in the regional final on Tuesday afternoon with a 5-3 win over county rival Elkin, marking the second time this season that Mount Airy (15-3) had vanquished the Mountain Valley Conference champion Buckin’ Elks. However, this was a very different showdown than the 9-0 shellacking back on March 13. Not only was more at stake, but the Bears also knew they didn’t get Elkin’s best that day.
When the Elks (14-3) had faced the Bears the first time, it was without their No. 1 singles player, Ryan Macy, who was the 2016 state 1A singles champion and added the 2018 title on Saturday in Cary. Minus the state’s best 1A player and with everyone else forced to move up one seed, Elkin had no chance in March.
With their champion back and on their home courts, the Elks hoped Tuesday would be different, and it was…but not enough. The Bears won 5-3, and Macy’s high school career ended with two individual wins but no trip to the regional final.
It wasn’t for lack of trying on his part. Mount Airy is hardly a slouch at No. 1 singles itself, but Emory Bray held serve just one time against Macy in a 6-1, 6-0 loss that put the Elks on the board first. Fortunately, Elkin only has one Macy. Owen Perkins, playing at No. 5 singles, earned a break to go up 3-2 on Joe Gallion in first set and then won out, evening the score with a 6-2, 6-0 victory.
The Bears were also flexing their muscles in the other match at that end of the lineup, as senior Ryan Graham blanked Jose Zuniga in set one. Zuniga tried to rally in a second set where both players had trouble holding serve. Graham appeared to have the match in hand when he was broken at 5-3, but broke back and won 6-0, 6-4. The visitors led two matches to one.
Hunter Eaton made it 3-1 with a victory at third singles. He won the first three games from Holt Jackson before Jackson won on serve and then scored a break at 3-1. But this just seemed to make Eaton mad, and he broke back twice for the first set and then overcame an early break in set two, cruising to a 6-2, 6-3 victory.
Second-seeded Harrison Morris was also on form for the Bears, winning three of the first four games before he and Silas Coley started swapping service breaks. But this worked to his advantage since he was already in the lead, and in set two he earned a break to lead 3-2 and then won out, 6-3, 6-2. Mount Airy now needed just one more team point to advance.
Although the No. 4 singles was still on the court, it was already clear that this one would go to the Elks. Patrick Soos won the first five games of his match with Kaleb Morrison. Morrison tried to rally in set two, leading 2-1 early, but after the two players swapped breaks, Morrison lost another one at 4-5 to drop the match, 6-2, 6-4.
The Bears needed to win just one of the three doubles matches to move on. But Macy would be heard from one more time.
The Elkin standout teamed with Gallion to play at No. 2 doubles against Morrison and Perkins. It was 5-2 in Elkin’s favor after Morrison and Perkins lost all of their first three service games but also scored two breaks. They finally held on the next point, but then Macy and Gallion won out, 10-3, and closed the team score to 4-3.
But hope was fleeting for the Elks. While that match was going on, Eaton and Graham were rolling over Soos and Zuniga in the No. 3 doubles match. They won the first three games, swapped breaks to make it 5-2, then won out for a 10-2 win that sent the Bears to the regional final.
Bray and Morris, playing No. 1 doubles, held a 7-6 lead on Coley and Jackson when the No. 3 doubles ended. The match was halted at that point with no conclusion.
The Bears were one of five wild-card teams in the 1A West field, and the only one to win a playoff match. They checked off fellow wild-card East Wilkes (5-1), then previously unbeaten North Stanly (9-0) and then the Elks.
Mount Airy will travel to Lincoln Charter on Wednesday evening for the right to play in the state championship match. Lincoln (15-1), the champions of the Southern Piedmont 1A, defeated Bishop McGuinness 5-3 on Tuesday.