Local high school tennis is undergoing a paradigm shift unmatched by anything short of the year Carrboro first put a varsity team on the courts.
The story line for years in the Carolina 6 and then Big 8 Conferences was that everyone was playing catch-up with Cardinal Gibbons. The gap between Gibbons and everyone else just grew larger when Carrboro entered the 2A scene, splitting some of Chapel Hill’s talent pool (and a sliver of East Chapel Hill’s.)
Meanwhile, East ruled the Piedmont Athletics Conference, never failing to win the PAC-6 crown every fall since the opening of the then-3A school in 1996.
All that’s changed. Cardinal Gibbons — winner of two straight 3A dual-team championships and three of the last four — is now a member of the PAC-6. That creates an instant rivalry with East Chapel Hill and opens the road wide open for Chapel Hill to claim the Big 8 championship.
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“We’re certainly looking forward to the competition,” Gibbons tennis coach Andrew Tuttle said last week. “We played a lot of 4A teams over the years in non-conference matches, and the 4A has a lot of the top players in the state. But it’s not a completely new experience for our players. ... It’ll be interesting to see how we respond.”
East Chapel Hill: The Wildcats are far from being sitting ducks for the Gibbons Crusaders. East Chapel Hill has won seven dual-team championships in women’s tennis (and just about the same number of men’s championships), although the Wildcats haven’t won it all in the fall since moving up to the 4A.
The biggest change for East’s players may not be the arrival of Cardinal Gibbons in the PAC-6 but the departure of Lindsey Linker after 17 years as head coach. Veteran Chapel Hill High School coach Nick Walker, at Linker’s personal request, came out of retirement last month to take over the program this fall.
“I wasn’t looking for another job,” Walker said, adding that East athletics director Ray Hartsfield called more than once to finally convince him to take the job. “I thought about it and said, ‘yeah, maybe, I’d like to do try it again.’
“The kids are great, and it’s fun to work with them again. But getting up early for practice is kind of a challenge.”
With sophomore Brooke Pritchard playing at No. 1 and senior Caroline Pope at No. 2, both earning all-state honors, East Chapel Hill finished 19-3 last year.
Pritchard moved out of state, and Pope graduated along with 2015 classmates Sarah McMahon and Lily Smith, who played No. 3 doubles for East. But Walker has plenty of players left to rebuild the ladder.
Rising sophomore Victoria Jones was undefeated (6-0) at No. 5 singles, and 8-1 when she played at No. 4. She ended her ninth-grade season by winning the PAC-6 singles championship. Then-junior Jocelyn Reckford was undefeated (6-0) at No. 4 singles last year and 6-3 at No. 5 singles. Rising junior Iskra Joksimovic was 9-5 at No. 3, and 2016 senior Cassidy Bright was 10-1 at No. 6. All of them are in the mix for a top-six singles spot. They’ll get some competition Cassidy’s sister, ninth-grader Savannah Bright, a top player on the juniors circuit.
Chapel Hill: Tiger head coach Neil Alderman is enjoying a real sea change in Chapel Hill’s route to its first Big 8 championship. When the Tigers host Cardinal Gibbons on Sept. 15, it’ll just be a friendly non-conference match, with little bearing on the Tigers’ post-season plans. For years, Chapel Hill had to settle for a No. 2 seed in the dual-team playoffs, because always powerful Cardinal Gibbons had a hold on the No. 1 spot.
“The big difference between a 1 and a 2 is that you get more home matches as a 1,” Alderman noted, pointing out that his boys’ team had defeated a highly ranked Union Pines team 5-4 in last spring’s regular season only to lose a rematch at Union Pines, 4-5, in the NCHSAA tournament. “They had 200 fans there. That can make a difference.”
Chapel Hill has virtually everyone back from last year’s 14-7 conference runners-up.
Ria Das and Alderman’s daughter, Morgan, graduated after accounting for 20 wins between them, some of them as a doubles team, and rising sophomore Emily Easthom (9-5 in singles) has transferred to Carrboro.
But back are: senior co-captain Gabe Chew (8-6 at No. 1 as a junior), Gabby Kimec (6-0 in singles as a ninth-grader), rising sophomore Hailey Polsky (10-6), senior Emily Molina (who mostly played doubles), and senior co-captain Joy Stouffer (whose only losses came in doubles).
Alderman believes incoming ninth-grader Carolina Coch, a top-30 player among North Carolina’s 14U players, could contend for the No. 1 singles spot. Those letter-winners also still face challenges from newcomers Christina Park and Ellen Yu, both of whom were unbeaten in singles on last year’s undefeated junior varsity squad, which for the first time ever defeated East Chapel Hill home and away.
“We’ve still got some challenge matches left, so the lineup is not set,” Alderman said.
It’s the best of both worlds for the Tigers.
“We expect an easier time in our conference, and we’re better than we were last year,” Alderman said.
Carrboro: The Jaguars usually have to go out of conference to find competition to test them for the post-season, and that’s likely to be true again this year.
Carrboro will miss 2015 senior Olivia Shaheen and Danielle Sawyer, and not just because they breezed undefeated undefeated through the Mid-State 2A schedule and won a regional championship, said Jaguar head coach Jon Noyes. “Olivia was a great leader and played with great passion.”
Carrboro finished 15-3 last year, its only losses coming against Durham Academy, Cardinal Gibbons and former conference foe N.C. Science and Math.
Like many coaches, Noyes was waiting last week for the players to finish challenge matches to finalize his 2015 lineup, but he’s fairly sure about his top three. Mid-State MVP Jesse Ille — undefeated at No. 1 singles in last fall’s regular season and a finalist in the 2A state championships — is back for her sophomore season. So are Abby Rader and Emine Arcasoy — who also were undefeated in last year’s regular season. “They will be playing 2 and 3,” Noyes said.
Rachel McCowan, Anna Kemper, Isabel Chung, Zahra Goodwin, Dorie Speers and Emily Easthom are all battling for the remaining three singles spots. Who gets to start there “is the big question to be answered at this point,” Noyes said.
“Overall the team is very strong and is looking to win the conference for sure, and, more importantly, to make it past our East regional archrivals NCSSM into the dual-team state championship,” he said.