Whenever a team becomes marked or the one to beat, others want to know the secret of its success.
Athens Drive High’s girls tennis team is becoming dominant, and inquiring minds want to know.
In the past five years, the entire tenure of coach Gene Thomas, the Jaguars have finished as regular-season conference champions, including the last two in the Tri-Eight Conference.
The Jaguars will head into next week’s NCHSAA 4-A Dual Team Playoffs with a 15-1 overall record. Just like last year, the Jaguars went unbeaten in the conference and their only loss was to perennial power Broughton High.
“I think we’re a lot stronger this year than we were last year,” Thomas said. “But all of our opponents seem to be really strong as well. We just happen to be a little bit deeper.”
The starters for Athens Drive are the same starters from last year, giving Thomas a set of players who have already shown their skill on the court. And with only two seniors on the team, Meredith McNeill and Robin Van Cott, he is hardly worried about losing depth anytime soon.
“I’d like to say we’re strong in both singles and doubles,” Thomas said. “But we can only send two doubles teams to the [individual] playoffs.”
With three solid doubles teams, Thomas’ problem of too many strong teams is a dilemma many opposing coaches would not mind having.
In singles, junior Kelsey Hitchcock went 13-0 during the regular season, while Van Cott only had three losses. Sophomore Anna Lin and McNeill both finished 14-1, their only losses coming against Broughton.
A trend? For Athens, being one of the top teams in the area has become more like a routine.
“We just work on fundamentals,” Thomas said. “We do drills for singles and doubles, but we work a lot more on the basics to make sure they all have a great foundation.”
Most of Thomas’ players compete outside of the school, giving them year-round practice and training on their technique, such as serving. Since the high-school tennis season is fairly short, Thomas can use his time to focus on the important game skills, like volleying and ground strokes.
His method appears to work.
“In practice, we work on a little bit of everything,” Athens sophomore Amanda Terrill said. “We’re doing really well. I think this season has even gone a lot better than expected.”
As the No. 5 singles player on the team, Terrill is in competition with teammate Kimberly Zapko for the back-draw bid into the playoffs, the equivalent to a wild-card slot in most other sports.
Van Cott, whose Athens career is almost over, can walk away with an impressive track record: a four-time conference champion with only one conference loss during those four years.
“Even in our team’s loss to Broughton this year, we actually played well,” she said. “We won our doubles match, which was exciting.”
In the Tri-Eight Conference Tournament, held Wednesday and Thursday at the Cary Tennis Center, Athens’ No. 1 doubles team of McNeill and Lin reached the championship against Green Hope High’s Calle Kucharski and Taylor Gibson. The Falcons’ pair defeated Athens’ Van Cott and Kelsey Hitchcock in the seminfinals.
After putting on strong performances in the earlier rounds, McNeill and Lin could not hold their momentum and lost to Kucharski and Gibson, 6-3, 6-2.
By advancing to the semifinals, doubles teams got automatic bids into the NCHSAA Regional Individual Tournament.
Although the Jaguars have proven their dominance throughout the regular season, they have struggled to advance past dual team playoffs’ second round. This year, Thomas is hoping his players’ fundamentals and the team’s depth will give them the needed boost.
“The playoffs are always tough,” he said. “But I’ve definitely noticed an improvement in the way our team has played over the course of the season. The more they play, the stronger we get.”
at Cary Tennis Center, Oct. 11-12
First round: Cox (Middle Creek) def. Miller (Lee County), 6-0, 6-0; Terrill (Athens Drive) def. Young (Fuquay-Varina), 6-1, 6-0; Worthington (Apex) def. Steele (Green Hope), 6-1, 4-6, 6-2; Saunders (Cary) def. Payne (Panther Creek), 4-6, 6-3, 6-1; Armistead (Green Hope) def. Mann (Lee County), 6-0, 6-0; L. Cross (Apex) def. Flanagan (Middle Creek), 6-4, 7-6 (3); Zapko (Athens Drive) def. Thornton (Fuquay-Varina), 7-5, 6-2; Rogers (Cary) def. Bullock (Panther Creek), 6-0, 6-0.
Second round: Cox (MC) def. Terrill (AD), 6-1, 6-0; Worthington (A) def. Saunders (C), 6-2, 6-0; L. Cross (A) def. Armistead (GH), 7-5, 6-1; Rogers (C) def. Zapko (AD), 6-0, 6-0.
Semifinals: Cox (MC) def. Worthington (A), 6-1, 6-2; Rogers (C) def. Cross (A), 6-0, 6-0.
Championship: Cox (MC) def. Rogers (C), 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.
First round: Kucharski and Gibson (Green Hope) def. Knox and A. Cross (Apex), 6-0, 6-1; Pritchard and Hopper (Middle Creek) def. Brune and Schultheis (Cary), 6-0, 6-2; Van Cott and Hitchcock (Athens Drive) def. Thomas and Briggs (Lee County), 6-0, 6-0; Hubbard and C. Cook (Fuquay-varina) def. Wrenn and Wetherell (Panther Creek), 6-2, 6-0; Jin and Boghosian (Green Hope) def. Wilson and Trogden (Lee County), 6-4, 6-0; White and Burton (Middle Creek) def. Subramaniam and Diaz (Cary), 6-0, 6-1; Shea and Wilson (Apex) def. T.Cook and Montgomery (Fuquay-Varina), 6-3, 2-6, 6-2; McNeill and Lin (Athens Drive) def. Kim and Snyder (Panther Creek), 6-1, 6-1.
Second round: Kucharski and Gibson (GH) def. Pritchard and Hopper (MC), 6-3, 6-0; Van Cott and Hitchcock (AD) def. Hubbard and C. Cook (FV), 6-0, 6-1; White and Burton (MC) def. Jin and Boghosian (GH), 6-1, 6-3; McNeill and Lin (AD) def. Shea and Wilson (A), 6-0, 6-1.
Semifinals: Gibson and Kucharski (GH) def. Van Cott and Hitchcock (AD), 6-1, 6-3; McNeill and Lin (AD) def. White and Burton (MC), 4-6, 6-0, 6-3.
Championship: Gibson and Kucharski (GH) def. McNeill and Lin (AD), 6-3, 6-2.v
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