High school girls tennis: Turnaround season for Falcons

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 8, 2023

By Mike London

CHINA GROVE — West Rowan’s marvelous girls tennis run has come out of nowhere.

The Falcons won 8-1 at Carson on Monday to finish the regular season at 15-2.

They went 14-2 to finish second in the nine-team South Piedmont Conference. No one is more startled by 14-2 than coach Jonathan Brown.

In one year, his team went from only winning two to only losing two.

“I knew all the girls might  improve some, but I didn’t see this coming,” Brown said. “I don’t know how anyone could have seen it coming. I mean, we beat East Rowan twice in 2022 and finished next to last. But here we are in second place. That’s quite a turnaround.”

Winning the SPC was never a possibility. Lake Norman Charter is a state contender, head and shoulders above the rest of the league, and beat the Falcons 9-0 and 8-1 in August.

But the Falcons haven’t lost since Aug. 28. As the SPC’s second-place team, they’ll be in the 3A dual team state playoffs for the first time since the Payton Holt days.

Holt was a special player in the autumns of 2015-18 and led Brown’s Falcons to strong seasons. The Falcons competed in those days for North Piedmont Conference championships with solid teams from South Iredell and Carson.

West began a gradual slide with Holt’s departure and the Falcons have taken it on the chin in their two previous seasons in the current configuration of the South Piedmont Conference. They went 4-10 and 2-12. The league added Robinson this year, so teams played 16 conference games instead of 14.

West returned its top four from that struggling lineup of 2022 — Izzy Melton, Autumn Yount, Emma Crider and Ally Suggs. Also returning was Laney Moore who played doubles matches.

With five returners, some improvement was expected. West also added two key freshman, Olyvia Brown, the coach’s daughter, and Lucy Moore, Laney’s sister.

“I thought we might improve enough to get into the middle of the pack,” Brown said. “But there are some pretty fair teams in this league besides Lake Norman Charter. Northwest Cabarrus and Concord always have good players. Carson and South Rowan are pretty tough. I didn’t know that we’d be able to beat any of those teams, but then we started winning.”

When everyone is healthy and available, the Falcons’ top three seeds are still the same as last year, but the freshmen changed everything by lengthening the lineup.

Brown’s daughter stepped in at No. 4 singles.

“She’s hit with me for a lot of years,” the coach said. “I don’t know that she’s a tennis player, but she is athletic and fast, and that gets her by in most matches.”

Lucy Moore came in at No. 5, so Suggs, who played No. 4 in 2022 was able to drop to No. 6. That’s been pivotal for the Falcons. Suggs didn’t win often at 4 last year, but she’s been dynamite — 10-1 — at No. 6.

“It’s not like we were just terrible last season — we weren’t losing 9-0  — but we couldn’t win any matches because we couldn’t get any wins at 5 and 6,” Brown said. “This year we’re getting those wins at 5 and 6. We’ve won every close match. I never thought we’d be able to beat Northwest Cabarrus, but we beat them twice. Teams match up differently with one  other. One of the toughest match-ups this year for us has been South Rowan. They finished in the middle of the SPC, but we beat them 5-4 both times, and both times it came down to our No. 3 doubles team.”

Both the wins against third-place Northwest Cabarrus were 5-4 battles.

When the teams clashed in Mount Ulla on Sept. 27, Northwest won at No. 1 and No. 2 singles and No. 1 and No. 2 doubles, but the Falcons won five lower-tier matches and got it done.

The first time West beat Northwest it did so despite being without Melton. Yount, a sophomore, moved up to No. 1 that day and won an epic match against a skilled Northwest player.

“There are people with prettier strokes than Autumn Yount, people that may look like they would be better tennis players, but she beats a lot of those people,” Brown said. “She’s a grinder. She’s awfully tough mentally.”

West also didn’t have Melton for the regular season finale at Carson and had beaten the Cougars 6-3 in the first meeting, so Brown expected a difficult match.

That’s not how it turned out. It was 8-1, The Falcons swept singles.

Yount moved up to No. 1 and won with surprising ease (6-1, 6-0) against Allie Martin, one of the county’s best athletes. Crider, Brown.Lucy Moore and Suggs all moved up a seed and they all won. West also won at No. 6, where Laney Moore stepped into the lineup.

Martin and Brenna Smith won at No. 1 doubles, but Young/Suggs won at No. 2 doubles and the Moores played together and won a close match at No. 3.

“That first cycle through the league we were beating  a lot of teams, but I didn’t allow myself to get happy because I knew it could all change pretty quick,” said Brown, who also is West’s successful wrestling coach “But now that we’re in the playoffs, I’ll let myself get happy a little bit. The girls have done great. They can be proud of what they’ve done.”

The Falcons are still hoping to add more accomplishments.

The conference tournament to determine singles and doubles qualifiers for the regional will be held at West on Oct. 12.