High school tennis: Carson ready for playoffs
By Mike London
CHINA GROVE — Carson’s girls tennis team is 15-0.
With the 3A dual team state playoffs starting on Wednesday, a school record for victories is already in the books, topping Carson’s 14-4 final record in 2011.
Ironically, 2011 was the senior year of high school at East Rowan for Carson’s 25-year-old coach Kayela Galloway. East Rowan ruled the North Piedmont Conference that season, while Carson finished as runner-up.
Galloway filled out one of those Salisbury Post “Meet the Players” forms during the 2011 season at East when she made it to regionals as a doubles player. She wrote that she loved pink, the South Carolina Gamecocks and Ping Pong. Her nickname was “Sunshine.” Her career goal was to become a history teacher.
After graduating from Catawba College in 2016, teaching history is what she does now at Carson.
“I’m living the dream,” Galloway said with a laugh.
Galloway’s rookie year as Carson’s head coach in 2017 was unexpectedly exciting. Carson went 13-3 and tied South Iredell for the NPC title. That was a team with experienced seniors Emily Sloop, Gabi Jolly and Siera Fesperman. They weren’t amazing athletes, but they were solid tennis players. They were doggedly determined and had superior technique to most of the opponents they encountered.
The team Galloway has constructed now relies on two of the girls who were young starters on the 2017 team — senior Maci Cooper and junior Jadyn Kirkpatrick.
When she worked out this season’s non-conference schedule, even with Cooper, Kirkpatrick and Lindsey Conrad leading the returners, the last thing on Galloway’s mind was going undefeated.
“I knew with the girls we had coming back that we should have a very good team,” Galloway said. “But, honestly, I wasn’t thinking an undefeated regular season was a possibility. We scheduled Concord, Mooresville, Cox Mill and Lake Norman. The reason we scheduled those strong programs for non-conference matches was to be ready for the NPC. Preparation was our emphasis. I didn’t think we were prepared well enough for the early NPC matches last year, and it hurt us.”
In 2018, Carson lost to West Rowan on Aug. 30 and to South Iredell on Sept. 6. Carson won its last eight regular-season matches, including the rematches with West Rowan and South Iredell, but still finished second in the NPC, one game behind the Falcons.
Carson’s opening match this season with Concord was weathered out, but victories over Mooresville, Cox Mill (the South Piedmont Conference champ) and Lake Norman not only boosted Carson’s confidence, they had the Cougars more than ready for the NPC. There were two 9-0 wins over third-place West Rowan and two 8-1 victories over second-place South Iredell.
Carson has been dominant throughout the lineup, although that lineup has experienced tweaks along the way, due to the results of challenge matches. Cooper has played matches at 1, 2 and 3. Carleigh Perry has played at 3, 4 and 5.
Conrad, Carson’s No. 1, is the NPC singles champion. She’s 13-2. Cooper (14-1) and Kirkpatrick (14-1) not only win almost every singles match, they are 13-2 as a doubles team. They took the NPC doubles championship.
Perry, who will be Carson’s No. 4 seed for the playoffs, is 15-0 in singles, qualified for regional competition in singles as the third-place finisher in the NPC, and will team with Conrad in the playoffs at No. 1 doubles.
No. 5 Keeley Watson is 13-1, while No. 6 Riley Isley is 14-1. The Watson/Riley team is 14-0 at No. 3 doubles.
In other words, Carson hasn’t been losing anywhere.
“The girls are very competitive with each other, and there were some intense challenge matches,” Galloway said. “A lot of our girls can beat each other on a given day. When they play, it’s been a matter of which one is going to outlast the other. It’s not like we’ve got a Payton Holt (a West Rowan graduate who was the 2018 county and conference player of the year), but what we do have is a lot of girls who could play No. 1 for a lot of teams.”
Besides their depth, what stands out about the Cougars is sheer athletic ability. They’re quick and agile. They get to balls.
Despite their tennis accomplishments, Conrad and Isley are probably better known as soccer players.
Perry, whose career has been hampered, but not stopped, by two ACL injuries, and Cooper are definitely better known as basketball players. The amazing Cooper, who is 5 feet tall, is also the center fielder for the softball team and has posted strong times and marks for Carson track and field in the sprints, hurdles and triple jump. When she shows up for a conference or county meet, she can beat many girls who have been practicing for months.
“I don’t think any of these girls took up tennis prior to middle school and Maci didn’t start until her freshman year of high school,” Galloway said. “But these are really special athletes. For a lot of them, playing tennis was just a good way to stay in shape for their main sport.”
But tennis became more meaningful to all of them. These aren’t just basketball and soccer players walking around swinging rackets. They take pride in being tennis players, in being conference champs.
“They’ve all evolved as tennis players quite a bit and improved technically,” Galloway said. “I think where playing those other sports does help them is the mental aspect. They have this athletic mindset that they’re going to compete, that they’re going to fight, and even if they get down, they never stop believing they can come back.”
Carson will be at home against Southern Alamance when the dual team playoffs get started on Wednesday.
This will be Carson’s ninth trip to the playoffs. 3A tennis is tough. Cougars have won only three playoff games in their history (2014, 2015 and 2017) and have never made it past the second round.
But this could be the year the Cougars take a step forward.
“We’ve got girls who don’t back down and they’ve made up their minds to be good,” Galloway said. “It’s been an enjoyable season. We’ve been having a lot of fun out here.”
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