CARY — Panther Creek’s girls tennis team defeated a familiar foe Wednesday, but this time the stakes were much higher than in the regular season as the Catamounts raced past Southwest Wake 4A rival Green Hope.
The Catamounts’ 5-1 win in the N.C. High School Athletics Association 4A dual-team tennis semifinal on Wednesday at the Cary Tennis Center sends Panther Creek to the state finals on Saturday in Burlington.
After years of Panther Creek and Green Hope having their seasons ended in the playoffs by perennial power Broughton, the All-Southwest Wake Athletic Conference final was a source of pride for players and coaches on both sides of the net.
“It speaks volumes to the level of play in our conference,” said Panther Creek coach Nathaniel Blalock. “We’ve been considered the also-rans, but our conference is strong. There are a lot of talented players and teams.”
Panther Creek, which opened in 2006, won its first 4A East title without senior Megan Smith, whose arrival in 2010 signaled the program’s rise. She aggravated a wrist injury in the Broughton victory, but Blalock said the Catamounts expect her to compete in the state final.
The final was set up when the Catamounts defeated Broughton in Monday’s semifinals and the Falcons won their semifinal match against the Cap Eight’s Millbrook.
“It was awesome they beat Millbrook,” said Panther Creek sophomore Sammi Smith, who swept at No. 1 singles. “Millbrook is a good team, so we knew coming out here we were playing a good team.”
In the two regular-season SWAC matches, Panther Creek won 8-1 both times. The 5-1 tally was a result of doubles being canceled after the Catamounts clinched the singles win.
But the lopsided score wasn’t business as usual. In the first meeting, Green Hope’s only point came when Sammi Smith was forced to retire with an injury. In the second match, senior Priyanka Srinivas scored Green Hope’s lone team point.
In the third match, four wins came in quickly from Sammi Smith at No. 1, 6-1, 6-2; sophomore Jordan Strickland at No. 2, 6-0, 6-1; freshman Aishani Tingare, 6-1, 6-1; and senior Katie Ryan, 6-2, 6-1.
But the Nos. 3 and 5 matches remained in doubt much longer. Green Hope didn’t roll over despite entering the match as heavy underdogs.
Green Hope sophomore Ellie Ackerson won at No. 5 singles 7-5, 6-1, while No. 3 Panther Creek sophomore Orla Labiche outlasted Green Hope sophomore Sara Ackerson 7-5, 6-3.
“They’re a strong team,” Ellie Ackerson said. “We were happy for them when they beat Broughton. The scores today look like we were crushed, but the matches were closer than that.”