High School Sports

Panther Creek tops Clayton in 4A tennis playoffs

Trice Pickens’ decision to shun baseball in favor of tennis has proven to be a home run for the Panther Creek Catamounts.

Pickens, a sophomore who competes at No. 1singles, came up with one of many key victories for the Catamounts during their 5-1 road triumph at Clayton on Tuesday in a duel of undefeated clubs in the second round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A boys tennis playoffs.

A right-hander who has the ability to play with both power and finesse, Pickens registered a 6-4, 6-3 conquest against Clayton senior standout Klein Evans, a 2015 state runner-up who has signed with the University of Richmond.

“For the most part, I thought I played pretty well and was consistent,” said Pickens, who finished second last weekend in the individual portion of the 4A Mideast regionals. “I used my touch shots pretty well and served well. I have grown up playing against (Evans), so I didn’t feel tense going in. I knew what to expect.”

Pickens’ presence solidified what was destined to be a strong lineup this spring for the Catamounts (19-0). Panther Creek, coached by Nathaniel Blalock, welcomed three performers back from last year’s three-loss club, and Donovan Lilov was coming in as a promising freshman.

Still, the Catamounts didn’t boast a dominant No. 1 performer, though Pickens was enrolled at Panther Creek but didn’t join the team last year as a ninth-grader. Instead, Pickens opted to try out for the baseball program, though he was an accomplished court star on the junior circuit.

“To be honest, I didn’t even know that Trice played tennis at first,” Blalock said. “I thought he was a baseball guy. Some of the players on our girls tennis team told me about him and said he might join the team this season. So one day I asked him if he was interested. We are glad to have him.”

Said Pickens: “I just felt like I had more (long-term) opportunities with tennis. I wanted to dedicate more time to it. Even when I was on the baseball team, I was still playing a lot of tennis, just not (at Panther Creek).”

Pickens was one of five Catamounts who came away with wins on Wednesday.

Pickens’ tough triumph over Evans pushed Panther Creek on the cusp of an overall victory without having to play doubles. Lilov, at No. 3 singles, then finished things off by outlasting Clayton’s Brooks Lawrence by a 6-4, 7-5 total.

After all of the other singles matches had been completed, Lilov’s teammates clung to the fence behind his court to cheer on the ninth-grader. He responded by winning the final two games of the second set to avert a possible tie-breaker – and clinch the match for Panther Creek.

“There was a little more pressure knowing we were the only match left, but my teammates helped me get through it,” Lilov said. “I knew I had to win for my team. Everybody else had won. We didn’t want to play doubles.”

Panther Creek, which is ranked No. 1 in the state in the latest North Carolina High School Tennis Association Coaches Poll, advances to the third round of the state playoffs for the first time in school history.

The Catamounts will tangle with Enloe in an all-Wake County state quarterfinal. On the other side of the bracket is Green Hope and Millbrook.

“Our first goal this season was to beat Green Hope, and we did that,” Blalock said. “Our next hurdle was to get some guys into the state individual tournament, and we did that with Trice in singles and Alex Kim and Donovan Lilov in doubles. Then we wanted to get past the second round, so this was definitely a big win for us.”

Clayton’s loss closed the Comets’ strong campaign at 19-1, but coach Kenneth Stivason’s club was unable to get past the second round for the third consecutive season.

The setback was also the end of an era for Clayton, which will say goodbye to three of its top four singles players to graduation. Those performers led the Comets to a quartet of championships in the Greater Neuse River Conference.

“Those seniors have carried our program for the last four years,” Stivason said. “But you always know that kids are going to graduate and move on to do better things. We played well against Panther Creek, but they are a very good, deep team. We knew we had to win our top three singles matches to have a chance.”

The Comets’ lone triumph came at No. 2 singles as freshman Banks Evans -- Klein’s younger brother, secured a 6-4, 6-0 decision over Kim.

The Evans brothers combined to go 42-2 this spring, while Lawrence, a N.C. Central signee, went 16-1 overall, with his first loss coming Tuesday.