Salisbury tops Atkins, moves on to state semifinals

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 14, 2019

By David Shaw

SALISBURY — That makes three down and two to go for the unbeaten Salisbury boys tennis team.

One year after falling two victories short of a state championship, the Hornets have advanced to the 2A state semifinals following Monday’s 5-0, third-round win against visiting Atkins.

“I think we have unfinished business,” junior Juan Salazar said, moments after Salisbury (21-0) secured a home semifinal match with East Lincoln at 4 p.m. Wednesday. “We all thought we’d do better last year. This year we’ve got three playoff wins — but it’s not good enough.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Salazar’s teammates. Five of Salisbury’s singles players were part of the lineup that fell, 5-4, to Brevard in last spring’s semifinals, closing a 21-1 season. Despite being a year older and more experienced, this year’s script looks eerily familiar.

“We were hoping for a ring last year,” said Ethan McGee, one of three seniors in coach Milton Griffith’s rotation. “But we cut it short. This year we’re pushing to get it because we were so close a year ago.”

“We’re using it as a revenge and motivation,” added Roarke Burton, the Hornets’ first-singles player. “Every once in a while we’ll remind everyone what we’re fighting for and what we can accomplish.”

Burton split two sets with Atkins sophomore Jackson Brown, falling 5-7 and winning 6-3. Theirs was the only match that wasn’t finished — discontinued when Salisbury clinched the victory at third singles. That’s where junior Sean Archer played through a steady dose of right arm pain to beat Ralph Sicat, 3-6, 6-3 and 10-6 in a tiebreaker.

“It’s a right arm muscle strain,” Archer said after improving to 19-1. “Not the best timing, but when you’re not 100 percent you’ve got to find ways to win.”

Archer said he prevailed by staying away from his forehand. “It was a tough two sets. I just outlasted him in the tiebreaker,” he said. “Simple as that. I had to have a strong backhand.”

Jander Rodas was first off the court after blanking Luke Bender, 6-0, 6-0, at fifth singles. He credited a strong serve and an adjustment to Bender’s left-handed returns.

“My serves I hit good,” said Rodas, now 18-0. “I didn’t double-fault the whole match and my volleys were good. His lefty serve got to me at the beginning — it spins the opposite of a right-handed serve. It threw me off at first, but I got it figured out.”

Next to triumph was junior Leo Schiavinato, a Brazilian exchange student who bested Adam Shealy, 6-2, 6-2, at No. 4 singles. “I heard about last year’s team, but I wasn’t here,” he said. “I think it just give us confidence to keep beating good teams.”

He said his serves were adequate and that his biggest challenge came from the sun’s glare. “And my ground strokes weren’t that good,” he noted. “I wasn’t hitting as hard, but I was able to put the ball back there and force errors. That was my strategy.”

Salazar made quick work of Rigved Doddi, winning 6-1, 6-0 at No. 6 singles.

“I had problems with my serve at first,” Salazar said. “It wasn’t working. By the second set I figured out what I was doing wrong. I have to remember to jump up and swing rather than lean forward and swing. I got frustrated in that first set because I lost a game for the first time in the playoffs. It messed with my head, but I kept going.”

Salisbury went up 4-0 when McGee beat Sreyes Venkat at second singles, 6-3, 6-4. “The best part of my game was my serve,” McGee said. “I always held serve. That was a key to winning. Without that, this would have been a lot harder.”

Griffith agreed. “This match was not as easy as it looked or as it seemed,” he insisted. “They battled us at one, two and three. Ethan won at second, but that was closer than it says on paper. You can’t take anything from (Atkins). They were a very good team.”

The Camels (15-2) had never before advanced to the third round, but coach Keishia Holmes was full of inspiration. “We knew Salisbury was a tough team one-through-six,” she said. “They’re strong physically and mentally. I told the boys to just play their game, even when they got down. I think they all kept their heads up and never gave in.”

Now the schedule turns ominous. East Lincoln (13-3) advanced with a 5-2 third-round win over Brevard.

“The easy part is over,” Griffith said. “We’re taking it a match at a time. We’re not looking down the road, but it’s kind of crazy. You don’t want to get too excited, but in your heart you look at this team and just feel it’s their’s to win. That’s what we’re praying for.”

NOTES: Rodas, Schiavinato and Salazar remain unbeaten in singles play. … Brown, the Camels’ No. 1 singles player, lost in the first round of last weekend’s state individual tournament. Teammates Sicat and Shealy each lost for only the second time. … Atkins had won nine straight matches since losing 5-4 at Mount Airy on March 22. … The 2A state championship match is scheduled Saturday morning at the Burlington Tennis Center. Salisbury last won a state title in 1993, when coach Bill Lee led the Hornets to a 3A championship.