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Prep Tennis: Mustangs have extra motivation to keep streak going

GRANITE QUARRY — Dr. James Willard Emerson was a familiar and reassuring presence at East Rowan boys tennis matches for three springs.
He was there supporting his son Ike, East’s No. 1 seed since he was a freshman, but he also was cheering just as hard for Ike’s teammates.
There was never a shortage of things for Dr. Emerson to get enthusiastic about, as the Mustangs went undefeated in conference play all three seasons.
“He would pace the courts when it was close,” said Rachel Pillsbury, whose son Nikolas plays No. 5 singles and No. 3 doubles for the Mustangs. “You could always tell how the boys were playing by how hard Dr. Jim was pacing.”
Dr. Emerson died at 76 on Jan. 16 after an amazing double-duty life as both an educator and Army major general, but the Mustangs are keeping the extraordinary man and his widow (Bonnie) close to their hearts. There’s a white “JWE” on the red left sleeve of every East player’s shirt.
“Ike’s dad was a great supporter, always there for us, and now with his initials on our sleeve, we feel like he’s still here watching,” said Chance Brown, East’s No. 2 singles player and Ike’s longtime doubles partner. “We all talked about doing something to show how much we cared about Ike and about Ike’s family. We got approval to do it. I’m glad we did.”
“Every match that I can ever remember, Ike’s dad was there,” added Nikolas Pillsbury. “We have a chance to go undefeated again. We want this season to be our memorial to honor him.”
East cruised past Carson 9-0 on Monday to stay unbeaten (5-0) and the Mustangs are now taking aim on their fourth straight conference championship and fourth straight perfect league season. East won the North Piedmont Conference in 2013. East has won the South Piedmont Conference the last two years.
Emerson and Brown, an outstanding No. 1 doubles team, will be at the forefront of that effort. They are two of East’s four senior starters, along with Pillsbury and Addison Fry.
“Back when I was a sophomore I didn’t like playing doubles and I didn’t really like playing with Ike,” Brown said. “But we were paired together one day and we beat our No. 1 doubles team in practice. That’s when I started thinking that playing with Ike might work out OK. Now we’re seniors, and now I love playing with him.”
While Brown is energetic and spunky, Emerson, who is headed to West Point, is tall, fit and poised and already looks exactly like a future officer is supposed to look. Like Brown, he also competes in swimming and cross country, but he’s also found the time to rank No. 1 in East’s senior class academically. He even talks like a general.
“I was up against a very good opponent (Graham Purcell) today,” he said. “But I had a good gameplan and carried it out.”
East doesn’t have the same team it did last year when it went 13-1 and wasn’t stopped until it ran into eventual state champ Marvin Ridge in the third round of the state 3A playoffs. Missing from that strong club are Jeremy Price and Gordon Krause.
The good news is Robert Gray is back from an ACL injury that cost him the 2015 season, and the junior has stepped right in at No. 3 singles and No. 2 doubles.
“It was tough watching last year and not being able to help out the team,” Gray said. “It’s great to be playing again.”
The other new face in the lineup is junior Zakk Perdue. He’s playing No. 6 singles and serves as Gray’s doubles partner.
“Zakk was about No. 11 for us last year, but he’s really worked,” East coach Jon Heidrick said. “He’s still looking for consistency, but there are times he plays brilliantly.”
Fry and Pillsbury provided automatic wins for East at the bottom of the lineup last season. Now they’ve worked their way up a spot to No. 4 and No. 5, respectively. Heidrick has kept them together as the No. 3 doubles team.
East has experienced one close call, a 5-4 victory at Cox Mill.
“We didn’t have our No. 5 (Pillsbury) for that match and our No. 7 and No. 8 were gone on the same school trip,” Heidrick said. “So we’re playing our 6 at 5 and our 9 at 6. Still, it wasn’t quite as desperate as it sounds. We were up 4-2 after singles, and we knew Ike and Chance weren’t going to lose at No. 1 doubles.”
The rest of East’s matches have been routine 9-0s. None of East’s six starters has lost a singles match at his normal seed.
While it was breezy and chilly on Monday as East handled Carson, it’s been a charmed spring season as far as sunshine.
“No bad weather, no postponements, no cancellations, no makeup dates,” Heidrick said. “That’s unheard of for spring. It’s been a perfect season so far, and I’d love to see these guys go undefeated again. This is a great group of kids.”
East hosts Concord on Wednesday. The Spiders were second in the SPC in 2015 when they lost to East 6-3, so this might be the biggest hurdle the Mustangs face in the conference.
“Concord is always tough,” Brown said. “But we just want to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve come too far to lose now.”
Emerson said there was a point in the Cox Mill match where he wasn’t sure if the shorthanded Mustangs were going to be able to pull it out, but then he thought about his father, and he felt confident that his teammates would come through.
“When I’m in a tough match, whenever I’m down, my dad gives me extra motivation,” Emerson said. “I know he’s watching. I know he’s cheering for all of us.”

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