Knights’ challenging non-conference schedule prepares them for competitive postseason

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SILER CITY — Early in this young tennis season, the Chatham Charter Knights have already found themselves dealing with plenty of on-court challenges.

Tough opponents, grueling playing schedules and heat-filled battles.

But that’s just the way they like it.

Chatham Charter’s women’s tennis team suffered its second straight loss of the season on Aug. 31, when the visiting Raptors from Research Triangle took down the Knights, 6-3, after winning four of six singles matches and two of three doubles matches.

“I thought we started off a little slow, a little sluggish, because of the heat and everything, but after a little bit, we kind of came back and started being more reserved, attacking the ball a little,” Kelly Eldridge, the Knights’ head coach, said after the match. “I was pretty pleased overall with how we played against their quality team.”

Research Triangle — which improved to 4-1-1 after defeating the Knights — was led by dominant performances from sophomore Olivia Hankinson (no. 1) and freshman Devna Patel (no. 2), who coasted through matchups with sophomore Elphie Spillman and senior Emery Eldridge, Chatham Charter’s no. 1 and no. 2 players, respectively.

Hankinson defeated Spillman, 8-0, in a singles match that she controlled the entire way, hitting jaw-dropping shot after jaw-dropping shot to send Spillman home with her fourth loss of the year.

Instead of getting frustrated and letting it affect her play, however, Spillman responded with a couple of nice rallies and even more sportsmanship, constantly giving props to Hankinson for her impressive shots.

While it might be rare for a player to compliment their opponent, Spillman — and the rest of her team — doesn’t shy away from it. Throughout the day, Knights were lauding Raptors for their play and vice-versa, evidence of the two teams’ positive competitive relationship.

“One of our team goals is to kind of stay positive and to encourage each other and not get down on ourselves because it’s not going to do you, personally, any good and it’s not going to do the team any good,” Eldridge said. “But at the same time, Elphie’s just like that. She’s a very considerate player like that. She’s never going to be a mean player.”

Patel also downed Emery Eldridge, 8-1, in the second-ranked match, giving the Raptors an early 2-0 advantage over the Knights.

For Spillman and Eldridge, this season’s gotten off to a rocky start. But it isn’t necessarily their fault.

As the Knights look ahead to regionals on Oct. 22-23 and states on Oct. 29-30, they’ve got their eyes focused on two things: seeding and competition level.

Hence why Chatham Charter scheduled such a brutal non-conference slate as a way to boost its resume down the line.

In four non-conference matches this season, the Knights have faced off against the likes of perennial powerhouses Union Pines and Raleigh Charter — known as some of the biggest “tennis factories” in the area — along with a couple of solid 2A opponents in Research Triangle and Chatham Central.

Chatham Charter took down both Union Pines (5-4) and Chatham Central (6-2) in their first two matches of the season, along with a strong 9-0 sweep of conference foe Cornerstone Charter Academy, but faltered against Raleigh Charter and, now, Research Triangle, losing both matches, 6-3, on back-to-back days.

“We’re trying rally hard to play some really hard teams that just pump us up, especially since I’ve got seniors that have played four years and they want that competition,” Kelly Eldridge said. “They don’t like to lose — I don’t like to lose — but they don’t mind when they’re playing a team that’s competitive that they know they played their best.”

The grueling schedule has led both Spillman and Emery Eldridge to a 2-4 start (4-8 combined) in singles play with them having to play the top-two players on each team’s roster.

Doubles play, however, has been a different story.

Through five matches, Spillman & Eldridge are 3-2 on the season with wins against Raleigh Charter, Chatham Central and Cornerstone, along with a hard-fought loss to Research Triangle’s Hankinson & Patel last week.

In the fifth game of their doubles match, Spillman showed a couple of flashes that reiterated why she’s the Knights’ top-ranked player — including a tough point at the net to seal the game — but ultimately, the Raptors’ duo hardly wavered, winning the match, 8-2.

“(They struggled) serving a little bit, especially their second serve,” Kelly Eldridge said. “They’d hit their second serve, but just a lot lighter, a lot different than the first, and then Research would just attack it. (Hankinson & Patel) just have these speedy, quick shots and we struggled to get there some of the time.”

Two of Chatham Charter’s high points came from seniors Ashlyn Hart and Emily Stecher, both of which won their singles matches, while Stecher also won her doubles match alongside junior Lillie Jones.

Hart, one of the Knights’ four starting seniors, defeated Raptors junior Abigail Ulanch, 8-4, in a match where she was ahead from the very start.

She took a 3-0 lead early in the match and used her experience to her advantage, rallying with Ulanch until she found an opportunity to catch her off-balance and win the point.

An example of this came at the end of the sixth game, when Hart sliced the ball down to her right, forcing Ulanch to run over and return it at the last second. Hart received Ulanch’s shot at the net and expertly knocked it to the back-left corner of the court, ending the game and giving herself a 5-1 lead.

“I thought she had really good placement, she was really watching for those holes and she was smart with her slices,” Eldridge said. “She also had some good groundstrokes and kind of hit it at the opponent’s feet. I think that really helped her.”

Stecher, Chatham Charter’s 6th-ranked player, was the lone Knight with success in both her singles match, an 8-2 victory over Raptors senior Julia Shough, and doubles match, where she and Jones fought hard for a nail-biting win, 9-7, over Ulanch and junior Elizabeth Genier.

Eldridge spoke highly of Stecher and her recent improvement, who she said is coming into her own as one of the team’s veterans.

“She’ll sometimes hit lighter and softer shots, but I’ve been working on her to get those harder shots and she’s coming around, in doubles even more than singles,” Eldridge said. “She’s improving every game. And even today, I saw that.”

The Knights are 3-2 in their first five matches with plenty of other challenges on the horizon, including rematches with Research Triangle, Chatham Central and Raleigh Charter.

They seem to be ready for whatever the schedule throws at them.

“I’m feeling really good, I’m very positive,” Eldridge said. “I was excited coming into this season with this group because I’ve had a lot of them several times and even those that aren’t in the top six have a lot of potential, they’re just not getting to play right now because of who’s slightly ahead of them. … (The rest of the season) will be good competition that helps us get ready for regionals and a higher level of play.”

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.


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