BURLINGTON — Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare” and Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” are just two of the classic children’s tales embodied by Chatham Central men’s tennis this season.
Heather Brooks, the Bears’ head coach, has another to add to the list.
“This is the little team that has come to show,” Brooks said on Monday, referencing Watty Piper’s famous story “The Little Engine That Could,” published in 1930. “We dropped the first three at the beginning of the season and we were like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ … and (now) we’re winning at the right time.”
The No. 12 Bears extended their storybook season by at least two days after an upset road win of the No. 9 Clover Garden Grizzlies, 6-3, in the third round of the NCHSAA 1A dual-team state playoffs in Burlington on Monday.
It was Chatham Central’s third-straight road victory this postseason, having upset No. 5 Bear Grass Charter in the first round and No. 4 North Moore in the second.
With the win, the Bears advance to the 1A East Regional, where they’ll face off against No. 3 Voyager Academy in Durham on Wednesday with a trip to the state title match on the line.
For the first time in program history, Chatham Central’s headed to the Final Four.
“I’m so excited,” Brooks said with an unshakable smile stuck on her face. “I called my husband (earlier) and was crying. He’s like, ‘Why are you crying?’ and I said, ‘Because I’m so proud of these guys.’”
By nearly all accounts, the Bears weren’t supposed to make it this far. Hence the “Little Engine” moniker.
To start the season, Chatham Central won just two of its first eight matches, suffering a pair of blowout losses to Seaforth, each time losing 7-2, and another to Uwharrie Charter, 9-0.
It was a rocky start, with the team’s eventual No. 1, Jacob Gilliland, being the lone returner that doubled as a member of last year’s top six. Everyone else was fresh to the lineup.
But as time passed, each player found his respective role, worked on his underlying weaknesses and evolved into a formidable tennis player.
“They matured a lot, from being these goofy boys the first few days to really taking it seriously,” Brooks said. “And they want it. They just want to win now.”
“They were intimidated because they lost all of those seniors (that were ahead of them),” Wendy Phillips, the team’s assistant coach, chimed in. “So they didn’t have confidence because they knew they were a very different team, but now they believe in themselves.”
Perhaps nobody showed as drastic of a jump as Landon Hackney, a strong senior that hovered around the team’s No. 8 spot last season but, after the loss of a few seniors during the offseason, he jumped into the No. 2 slot this year and has flourished.
Entering Monday’s third-round matchup, Hackney possessed a 10-1 overall record, including a 9-1 stint as the team’s No. 2 (and 1-0 at No. 1).
Hackney credits his evolution to his friend and former teammate, Jayden Gilliland — the brother of Jacob — who was one of the Bears’ top players during his four-year career until he graduated last spring.
“It’s a lot of work, I practiced a lot,” Hackney said. “It’s hard to find lessons down in Chatham County, but my friend over there [Jayden], he’s been helping me out a lot. He was the No. 1 the last four years, so he deserves a lot of credit for my success this year.”
The Bears’ coaching staff has heralded Hackney as the team’s de facto leader with him being one of just two seniors on the team, along with No. 4 Thomas Scott.
His passion for the game showed itself in the form of frustration on Monday, where he dropped his No. 2 singles match to the Grizzlies’ Will Oldham by a 6-7 (5-7), 4-6 score.
Oldham — a lengthy, athletic junior — made things tough for Hackney using his ability to put backspin on the ball during his returns.
“I tend to struggle to hit backspin and slices and that hurt me a lot today,” Hackney said when asked about his singles match. “It just wasn’t a great match (for me) in general, not taking anything away from him. I think he played amazing. … I was just not happy with the result.”
Oldham’s win acted as the second of two singles victories for the Grizzlies, the first of which came in a come-from-behind thriller by No. 4 senior Parker Whitt, who downed Scott, 0-6, 6-4 (10-6).
After losing his first set, Whitt locked in to win the second and force a tiebreaker — something Scott is all too familiar with, having gone 0-6 on tiebreakers this season prior to Monday.
Scott came out of the mandatory 10-minute break on fire, hopping out to a 5-3 point advantage, but just as he did in the second set, Whitt stormed back to win 7 of the next 8 points to earn the match victory.
Jacob Gilliland was the first Bear to emerge victorious in singles, earning a dominant win over Clover Garden’s No. 1, Blake Foley — who went 2-10 in regular-season No. 1 matches — by a 6-0, 6-2 score.
He was as nonchalant as could be when asked about both his singles and doubles matches in which his opponents won just four games combined against him.
“I really just placed it where I wanted it, moving (Foley) around the court,” Jacob Gilliland said. “I missed some of my serves (in doubles), but then we started hitting better shots, better volleys.”
Following Jacob Gilliland’s lead was sophomore Charlie Thomas, who downed senior Brock Foley in the No. 5 slot, 6-4, 6-1.
With wins for the Bears at No. 1 and No. 5, along with losses at No. 2 and No. 4, the overall match was in a 2-2 deadlock with just two singles matches left to play.
Both of them came down to the wire, with Bears’ No. 6 Jonny Martin outlasting a relentless fellow freshman in John Nall (6-4, 6-4) and No. 3 sophomore Seth Gilliland defeating junior Ayden Taylor (4-6, 7-5, (10-5)) in an endurance match for the ages.
Seth Gilliland’s comeback was one of the most pivotal matches of the day, Brooks said.
After losing a heartbreaker in the first set, he took a 3-0 lead to start the second as he finally got himself in a groove. But as quickly as his lead materialized, it rapidly faded as Taylor won four straight games to take a 4-3 lead.
It was a back-and-forth battle, but Seth Gilliland prevailed — thanks to his ability to simply wear his opponents out — forcing the match tiebreaker, which he won, 10-5.
“Coming back in that tiebreaker, that was pivotal because that gave us our fourth win in singles and that was much-needed,” Brooks said. “That took the pressure off.”
“As a team, I don’t think that (making it to the fourth round) was the expectation, but once we got into the year a little bit, here lately, we’ve beaten some people and everybody’s gotten a whole lot better,” Hackney added, “especially Seth (Gilliland) and Jonny (Martin). They’ve made just as much progress as I have, even if my results may look a little better. They’ve improved just as much as I have, if not more.”
Seth Gilliland’s victory gave the Bears a 4-2 match advantage after singles, meaning they needed just one doubles victory to seal the win and pull off the upset.
Instead, they got two of them.
Hackney got his revenge alongside Jacob Gilliland against the duo of Oldham/Blake Foley with an impressive 8-2 thumping that propelled the Bears into the next round.
“I made up for (the singles loss) in doubles, I think,” Hackney said. “I got broken one time, but we still got the match in a good way.”
The Chatham Central pairing of Thomas/Martin also won its doubles match against Brock Foley/Nall — after nearly losing an early 4-1 game lead — by a 9-7 score.
By the end, the Bears headed back to Bear Creek with a 6-3 victory and relief-filled smiles on their faces.
Even though they’ll have to gear up for another road trip to Durham on Wednesday, Brooks said they’re just thrilled to see another day.
“I was honestly just happy with winning in the first round … then we beat North Moore last week in a rain delay and I don’t even remember how many tiebreakers, but we had tiebreakers galore,” Brooks said. “These boys have come and they are ready. And they’re making school history.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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