Perhaps the N.C. High School Athletic Association should just call the West Regional final in girls’ tennis the “Lady Granite Bear Invitational.”
Mount Airy advanced to its eighth straight regional final on Thursday evening, holding off county rival East Surry 6-3 in a second straight match against a Northwest 1A Conference rival in which the No. 1-ranked Lady Bears (25-1) came out best in a handful of crucial situations in close individual matches.
Mount Airy hosts the regional final on Wednesday afternoon. The Lady Bears will be taking on Chatham Charter, the runner-up of the Central Tar Heel Conference, starting at 4:30 p.m. The winner of that match will advance to the state championship on Nov. 12 at the Burlington Tennis Center.
It wasn’t clear what to expect from the third meeting of the Lady Bears and Lady Cardinals, who came in as the state’s sixth-ranked 1A team in their own right. While East Surry (18-4) came in off a relatively easy victory over Pine Lake Prep on Tuesday, Mount Airy faced a grueling third showdown with No. 3 Bishop McGuinness in which it was outplayed for much of the match and needed two match tiebreaker wins in the singles to even get to doubles, where it pulled out a 5-4 victory.
East Surry, which lost 5-4 and 8-1 to the Lady Bears earlier this season and split with Bishop, had its opportunities in the singles, which ended up 4-2 in favor of the home team, but could have easily been 3-3 or even 4-2 for the Lady Cardinals.
Perhaps the pivotal match was the No. 1 singles, where Mount Airy’s Bailey Jackson and East Surry’s Haley Jennelle met for the third time this season. Jackson had won the first two meetings, but Jennelle had pushed her to a match tiebreaker in one of them. This time around, Jennelle won the first set when she broke Jackson on serve at 1-1 and then swapped wins to 6-4. However, Jackson turned it on and routed her 6-0 in the second set, sending them to a tiebreaker.
At this point in the match, the two teams were tied 2-2. East had taken the lead when Abigail Martin defeated Logan King 6-2, 6-3 at No. 3 singles, but the Lady Bears tied it when Elizabeth Marion topped Klaudia Tucker 6-2, 6-1 at No. 2. They swapped again when Lisa Omuro put her team on top with a 6-1, 6-1 win over Mikayla Manuel at No. 5, and then the Lady Cardinals answered with a 6-3, 6-4 victory for Sarah Mann over Maya Hicks at No. 4.
Whoever won the Jackson-Jennelle tiebreaker would give their team a big leg up. Jackson built a quick 6-2 lead and appeared to be on her way to victory, but Jennelle mounted a furious rally, with several outstanding shots, tying her at 6-6 and then taking an 8-7 lead. At 8-7, she earned double match point with a hard smash just inside the line to Jackson’s right.
Serving for the match at 9-7, Jennelle double-faulted. She still had match point at 9-8, but now serve reverted to Jackson. On the next point, Jackson got up close to the net and made a return that Jennelle couldn’t handle for a 9-9 tie. The next point was similar, with Jackson again coming to the net and blowing a winner past. This gave Jackson a match point of her own, and she converted to claim a 4-6, 6-0, (11-9) win.
However, events on the other side of the tennis complex were offering the Lady Cardinals a chance to salvage a 3-3 split. Over there, Elizabeth Bray had taken the first set 6-3 over East’s Carson Payne, but the Mount Airy senior and the East Surry sophomore were well-matched and had played to a match tiebreaker in one of their earlier meetings this season. In set two, Bray served for the match at 5-4, but was broken by Payne, who then won another game and went ahead 6-5 herself. Bray then held with Payne serving for the set win, forcing a set tiebreaker to seven points. In the tiebreaker, Payne appeared to have the advantage when she hit an outstanding shot to win a point and move ahead 5-4, but then Bray battled back to win the final three points of the tiebreaker. At 5-6, Payne was serving to take the tiebreak beyond seven points, but she double-faulted to hand victory to her opponent, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5).
The doubles matches would have to be played, but East Surry needed to sweep them to advance to the regional final. As it turned out, the suspense ended quickly. All three matches were played to completion, but the first one to finish gave the Lady Bears their fifth team point. At No. 3 doubles, Hicks and Omuro, both of whom had played physically taxing singles and doubles matches two days earlier, showed no signs of it. They won the last four points of their match against Mann and Payne to win 10-5.
East Surry got its other point in the next doubles match to finish, the No. 2. From a 4-3 lead, Tucker and Manuel reeled off four straight points against King and Bray to lead 8-3 and go on for a 10-5 victory.
The No. 1 doubles match between Jackson/Marion and Jennelle/Martin came right down to the wire, with the East Surry tandem serving at 8-9 to force extra points. However, Jackson and Marion broke them on serve and took the match 10-8.
Chatham Charter (15-3) advanced with a 5-1 victory over Gray Stone Day on Thursday. The Lady Knights, who are ranked fifth in the latest N.C. High School Tennis Association coaches’ poll, finished second to unbeaten and second-ranked Chatham Central in their own conference. However, because Central is geographically located east of Charter, it was assigned to the 1A East in order to balance out the regions, with the rest of the conference in the West. The only common opponent between Chatham Charter and Mount Airy is Elkin, whom the Lady Knights beat 5-3 on Tuesday in Siler City. The Lady Bears played the Lady Buckin’ Elks twice early in the season and won 9-0 and 8-1.
Mount Airy played Chatham Charter in last year’s third round and beat the Lady Knights 5-1 on the road.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.