Panther Creek boys tennis is returning to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A dual team state finals for the second straight year as a wiser lineup than the one that finished as runner-up a year ago.
The ninth-seeded Catamounts, playing as a favorite for the first time in this spring’s playoffs, swept No. 12 seed East Chapel Hill 5-0 on a 91-degree Wednesday afternoon on Panther Creek’s courts.
Panther Creek junior Siddhant Pal was first off the courts with a win at No. 3 singles, 6-0, 6-1. He said the Catamounts’ experience will count more this year than whatever the talent level differences are between the 2017 and 2016 rosters.
“We learned don’t calculate who is supposed to win,” Pal said. “Just go out there and play your hardest. We over-thought the match too much last year.”
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Panther Creek’s other four wins to clinch the match without doubles play were from junior Trice Pickens at No. 1, 6-2, 6-0; sophomore Alex Kim at No. 2, 6-1, 6-3; freshman Rishi Kakkar at No. 5, 6-1, 6-0; and sophomore Owen Shifflett at No. 6, 6-2, 6-3.
Junior Nadir Bajwa’s match at No. 4 singles was suspended once Pickens recorded the clinching fifth team point.
Kakkar and Shifflett are the newcomers to a lineup of underclassmen that returned four of last year’s six singles players.
Pal added the pressure to avoid a second straight runner-up finish hasn’t been a factor.
“We haven’t thought about it,” he said. “We want to win it badly, but we’re not thinking that way. We just want to go out and play. We know whoever we play they’re going to be tough.”
A year ago, the Catamounts followed the East regional title with a 5-2 loss in the state final to Page High of Greensboro. They’ll play undefeated Myers Park of Charlotte, the West region champion, in the state final at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Burlington Tennis Center.
The NCHSAA seeding may be skewed by the way it weighs conference titles, but the result was Panther Creek was on the road for three straight upsets – based on the seedings, anyway – before earning a home match against East Chapel Hill.
To reach the East final, the Catamounts recorded wins at No. 5 New Hanover in Wilmington, at No. 1 Green Hope and at No. 7 Cardinal Gibbons to the East Regional final. Panther Creek coach Greg Ray said the team’s maturity made it an easy transition for him as a first-year coach.
“They take every match seriously,” he said. “They don’t take anything for granted.”
East Chapel Hill pulled off two “upsets” to reach the region final. The Wildcats defeated No. 4 Clayton, No. 15 Wakefield and No. 2 D.H. Conley (though Wakefield was the toughest of the three).
That run will give East Chapel Hill an edge in next year’s postseason: Clayton and Conley are also moving down to 3A with the Wildcats.
“I’m very proud of this team to make it this far,” coach Nick Walker said. “We had a great season. We may have been outclassed, but to play a team as good as Panther Creek is an honor. They’re a great team.”