BURLINGTON — They won more matches than any other team in the state this season, and they spent the last 11 weeks of the regular season as the state’s top-ranked 1A girls’ tennis team.
In the end, it was just a few points here and there, and one great player, that stood between Mount Airy’s Lady Bears and the ultimate prize.
A lost match tiebreaker in the singles portion of Saturday’s state championship match at the Burlington Tennis Center put Mount Airy into the unenviable position of having to sweep the doubles matches from East champion and No. 2-ranked Raleigh Charter. All three of the matches were highly competitive, and the Lady Bears (26-2) actually led two of the three when the No. 1 doubles ended in a 10-6 victory for the Phoenix’ team of Camryn McClure and Christina Lee. With that, by rule, the match ended as a 5-2 victory for Raleigh Charter, which ended the season as state champion after losing to the Lady Bears in the 2013 final and to Bishop McGuinness last year.
McClure, the Phoenix’ No. 1 singles player, was named the tournament MVP, and in all honesty, may have been the difference between first and second in this match. The sophomore was a state finalist in 2015 and won the East Regional title this season, only to get upset by Atkins star Diana Alexandrov in the first round of the 2016 individual state finals. On Saturday, the Lady Bears had no answer for her. Bailey Jackson played well at No. 1 singles but still got swamped 6-0, 6-0, and then she and Elizabeth Marion had to contend with McClure again at No. 1 doubles, with no option but victory to keep the Mount Airy’s championship hopes alive.
They fought gamely, but it wasn’t enough. Jackson and Marion won the first game, but later surrendered a break in a game that went to deuce three times and which they once held the advantage. McClure/Lee built a 5-2 lead, but the Lady Bears’ duo fought back to 6-5 before seeming to run out of gas.
When the Phoenix won the title on a long return in this match, the other two doubles matches came to an end before they were completed. Mount Airy was winning them both. At No. 2, Logan King and Elizabeth Bray had match point at 9-8, 40-30 over Blair King and Emma Rowe, while at No. 3, the Lady Bears’ Maya Hicks and Lisa Omuro led Vedika Birla and Addison Furr 8-7.
“I thought if we could have just taken (No.) 1 to 7-8, we had a chance,” said Mount Airy coach Rodney Pell. “2 was on the verge of winning and 3 had fought back. We fought back and rallied, but we just came up short.”
However, the key for Mount Airy all season had been to at least split the singles matches, and they weren’t quite able to pull that off against Raleigh Charter (14-0), which had lost only three individual matches all season coming into the state finals.
There was never any doubt about the outcome of the No. 1 singles, but the Lady Bears actually had a 2-1 lead in completed matches not long after McClure wrapped up her victory. At No. 2, Marion overpowered Lee and won fairly easily, 6-3, 6-1. Meanwhile, across the way on another set of courts, Hicks and Rowe were battling at No. 4 singles.
In that one, Hicks annihilated Rowe in the first game and it appeared to be a mismatch, but the Raleigh Charter player settled down and it turned into a very close match, with Hicks pulling out a 6-4 win in set one. In the second set, Rowe was serving at 3-2 when Hicks went on a tear. The junior, who was arguably playing her best tennis of the season on Saturday, broke Rowe after two deuces and then won on her own serve with back-to-back service aces at 30-all and 40-30. With Rowe back on serve, Hicks won all but one point for a second break, then served out the match for a 6-4, 6-3 victory.
Unfortunately, there was trouble brewing elsewhere.
Two Kings were on the court in the No. 3 singles match, and Mount Airy’s version, Logan King, dropped a service break at 4-4 in the first set but broke back and took it 7-5, but then came unraveled in set two after taking a 2-1 lead on Raleigh Charter’s Blair King. Blair King caught fire herself, breaking Logan King three times to take the set and force a match tiebreaker, where she won the last six points and a 5-7, 6-2, (10-2) win.
The No. 6 singles was next to finish, as the Phoenix took a 3-2 lead thanks to a 6-3, 6-2 win for Vennela Avula over Bray. Ultimately, Omuro and Birla were the last ones on the court, and there was never much chance of Mount Airy taking this one. Omuro fought hard, but didn’t seem to have much working. She was able to play deep into games, but rarely won them. She rallied from 0-3 down in set two to briefly make a match of it, but lost 6-3, 6-3.
”We were committing quite a few errors early on, but that may have been because Raleigh Charter was playing nearly flawlessly and making us look that way,” said Pell. “They were very consistent and made very few errors.”
Trailing 4-2 going to doubles, Mount Airy put itself into a position of having to beat McClure.
That match saw Marion, the hardest hitter among the Lady Bears, often trying to power shots between McClure and Lee for winners. After dropping an early break and then breaking back and holding for 5-6, there seemed to a brief hope of victory for Mount Airy. But McClure and Lee held at 6-5 and then got another service break. The teams traded service breaks to make it 9-6, meaning Jackson and Marion needed to break and hold to keep the match alive. They couldn’t do it.
If they had, it would have been a fantastic finish. At No. 2, Logan King and Bray had lost the first three games, won two in a row, and then lost five of six to trail 3-8. But then they won six games in a row and were a point away from a seventh — and victory — when the match ended. The No. 3 doubles was much the same, as Hicks and Omuro, who never lost all season at that spot, fell behind 1-4 and then found a groove. They had just taken an 8-7 lead when play ended.
The match ended the careers of Lady Bear seniors Jackson, Anna Ilyasova, Omuro, King, and Bray.
As for Raleigh Charter, the Phoenix will be the team to beat next year. McClure is only a sophomore, and four of the team’ six singles starters return next year, including another sophomore (Rowe) and a freshman (Birla).
”We had a great year. We had 26 wins, most of any team in the state in any classification.” said Pell. “We started working back in mid-June. We believed we could be here, and our making it here probably exceeded some others’ expectations.
”Just a few extra points, and we could have been undefeated this season.”
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.