CHARLOTTE — The 2018 Mount Airy men’s tennis team went from wild-card to the last traditional school still standing in the NCHSAA 1A state playoffs. But the run finally came to an end in Wednesday’s regional final.
The showdown for a spot in the state championship match went to Southern Piedmont Conference champion Lincoln Charter, which knocked off the Granite Bears 5-1 at the Charlotte Indoor Tennis Club in a match that began at noon.
Mount Airy was competitive in nearly every match with the Eagles, but pulled out its only victory in the No. 4 singles, where sophomore Kaleb Morrison recovered from a poor second set and took down Lincoln’s Scott Noftsger 6-2, 2-6, 1-0 (10-4) to keep his team alive after the Eagles had won the Nos. 1-3 and 5 singles matches. This left it up to Ryan Graham, one of only two seniors to start for the Bears, to keep the match going and make Lincoln Charter (16-1) play the doubles matches.
Graham, who only entered the starting lineup for Mount Airy at midseason and who is better known as a basketball player for the Bears, fought heard but couldn’t hold off the Eagles’ Cutter Law. He’d fallen behind two breaks and lost the first set, but scored a break at 3-4 in the second set and then held to serve for the set at 5-4. A win would have sent Graham to a tiebreaker, but Law broke back and then went on to the 6-2, 7-5 victory that gave Lincoln Charter its fifth team point and the West Regional crown.
The Bears (15-4 overall) were back in the regional final for men’s tennis for the first time since winning the title in the 2010 season. Despite not being guaranteed a playoff berth after finishing second in the Northwest 1A Conference to Bishop McGuinness, Mount Airy got in as a wild-card team based on overall record. The Bears beat East Wilkes in the first round and then downed undefeated North Stanly and Elkin on the road, the latter pitting the last two traditional schools in the field. Lincoln Charter had a bye in the first round, then defeated Polk County, a newcomer down from the 2A ranks this season, and then spoiled Bishop’s unbeaten season in the third round. As a seeded team, the Eagles had the right to host the regional final, and secured the use of the CITC’s facilities for the purpose. It was the first time this season that the Bears had played indoors.
Top-seeded Emory Bray, who had to face the newly-crowned individual state champion against Elkin, faced another tough opponent in the Eagles’ Parker Powell on Wednesday. Powell had teamed with Lincoln’s No. 3 singles player Jackson Law to win the state doubles title last week. In the No. 1 singles match, Bray held serve to open against his second straight reigning state champion, but couldn’t do so again in a 6-3, 6-0 loss.
At No. 3 singles, the Bears’ Hunter Eaton had the unenviable task of beating the other newly-minted state champ in Jackson Law. Eaton hung tough after losing the first three games, but sometimes you fight the Law and the Law wins. After being down 0-3 in set one, Eaton held and then broke to get to 3-4, but lost the last two games in set one. After a poor start to set two, he rallied from down 0-40 in a game to get to 3-4 again. In the next game, he was down 0-40 again and fought back to deuce, but couldn’t complete the comeback and lost the match 6-3, 6-3.
Down 2-0 in team points, Mount Airy needed something good to happen. The next match to wrap up was another hard-fought one, where Harrison Morris opened up with a break over Jimmy Sherrill at No. 2 singles, but then struggled until well into the second set, which he opened down a break. At 4-5 in set two, he saved three match points, but lost serve at 5-5 and Sherill was able to take the match 6-1, 7-5.
Owen Perkins’ No. 5 singles match with Alex Orr was still ongoing at the time. Perkins won just four games and held serve only once, at 2-3 in set one, but contested many of the games deep into the score and scored multiple breaks, including one to open the match. However, when he lost the first three games of the second set, it doomed him to a 6-3, 6-1 defeat.
By contrast, Morrison was cruising early against Noftsger. He scored breaks at 2-1 and 4-1 and held at 5-2 to take the opening set, but then faltered in set two, losing the first three games. He scored a break, but then immediately gave it back, and was broken again at 2-5 to force the tiebreaker. Noftsger appeared to have the momentum, but Morrison found his game again and led 6-4 in the tiebreaker when he went on a closing tear, taking the last four points in succession.
Head coach Rodney Pell felt there was a chance the Bears could have rallied in the doubles if they could have gotten there, particularly since Lincoln wasn’t fielding its championship-winning Powell/Law combination, but they couldn’t get to that point.
“We faced a more experienced team and they played very well to win,” said Pell. “A couple of close matches determined the outcome.”
The Bears will return four of the six players who started in the regional final next season, losing only Morris and Graham. Morrison, who scored the team’s only singles win on Wednesday, is just a sophomore.
Lincoln Charter will face Raleigh Charter for the state championship on Saturday.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.