BURLINGTON – Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare” and Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” are just two of the classic children’s stories embodied in Chatham Central’s men’s tennis this season.
Heather Brooks, the Bears head coach, has one more to add to the list.
“This is the little team that came to show themselves,” Brooks said Monday, referring to Watty Piper’s famous story “The Little Engine That Could,” published in 1930. “We dropped the top three early in the season and we were like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ … and we’re winning (now) at the right time.”
The no. 12 Bears extended their picture-perfect season by at least two days after an upset No. 9 Clover Garden Grizzlies, 6-3, in the third round of the NCHSAA 1A dual-team state playoffs Monday in Burlington.
It was Chatham Central’s third straight road win this postseason after losing No. 1 in the first round. 5 Bear Grass Charter and in the second No. 4 had upset North Moore.
The win moves the Bears into the 1A East Regional where they face No. 3 Voyager Academy in Durham with a trip to the state title match at stake.
For the first time in program history, Chatham Central reached the Final Four.
“I’m so excited,” Brooks said with an unwavering smile on her face. “I called my husband (used to) and cried. He says: ‘Why are you crying?’ and I said, ‘Cause I’m so proud of these guys.’”
By almost all reports, the bears shouldn’t make it that far. Hence the nickname “Little Engine”.
Early in the season, Chatham Central won just two of their first eight games, suffering two losses to Seaforth, each losing 7-2, and another 9-0 to Uwharrie Charter.
It was a rocky start, with eventual team No. 1 Jacob Gilliland being the only returnee, doubling as a member of last year’s top six. Everyone else was fresh in the lineup.
But over time, each player found their role, worked on their underlying weaknesses, and developed into a formidable tennis player.
“They’ve matured a lot, from being those goofy guys in the first few days to really getting serious with each other,” Brooks said. “And they want it. They just want to win now.”
“They were intimidated because they lost all the seniors (who were in front of them),” chipped in Wendy Phillips, the team’s assistant coach, now they believe in themselves.
Perhaps no one has shown such a drastic leap as Landon Hackney, a strong senior who hovered around No. 8 on the team last season but after losing a few seniors in the offseason jumped to No. 2 this year and has flourished.
At the start of Monday’s third round, Hackney had a 10-1 aggregate record, including a 9-1 stint as the team’s No. 2 (and 1-0 at No. 1).
Hackney credits his development to his friend and former teammate Jayden Gilliland – Jacob’s brother – who was one of the Bears’ top players during his four-year career until his graduation last spring.
“It’s a lot of work, I’ve practiced a lot,” Hackney said. “It’s hard to find classes down in Chatham County, but my friend over there [Jayden], he helped me a lot. He’s been No. 1 for the last four years, so he deserves a lot of credit for my success this year.”
The Bears coaching staff have announced Hackney as the de facto leader of the team, with him being one of only two seniors on the team alongside No. 4 Thomas Scott.
His passion for the game showed itself in the form of frustration Monday as he lost his No. 2 singles match to the Grizzlies’ Will Oldham 6-7 (5-7), 4-6.
Oldham – a stretchy, athletic junior – made things difficult for Hackney, using his ability to add backspin to the ball on his return.
“I tend to have trouble hitting 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 fantastic. … I just wasn’t happy with the result.”
Oldham’s victory was the second of two singles victories for the Grizzlies, the first of which came in a come-from-behind thriller from senior No. 4 Parker Whitt, who trailed Scott 0-6, 6-4 (10-6 ) defeated ).
After losing his first set, Whitt finished to win the second and force a tiebreak – something Scott is all too familiar with having played 6-0 in the tiebreaker before Monday this season.
Scott came out of the mandatory 10-minute break with fire and hopped out with a 5-3 point lead, but just like in the second set, Whitt stormed back and won 7 of the next 8 points to earn the match win.
Jacob Gilliland became 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 No. 1 regular-season games, with a 6-0, 6-2 result .
He was as nonchalant as could be when asked about his singles and doubles matches in which his opponents have only won four games against him combined.
“I was really just putting it where I wanted it and moving (Foley) around the court,” said Jacob Gilliland. “I missed some of my serves (in doubles) but then we started hitting better shots and better volleys.”
Jacob Gilliland’s lead was followed by sophomore Charlie Thomas, who defeated senior Brock Foley 6-4, 6-1 in 5th place.
With wins for the bears in 1st and 5th place and defeats in 2nd and 4th place, the overall game ended in a 2-2 dead end with only two individual games left to play.
Both finished, with the Bears’ No. 6 Jonny Martin defeating a relentless fellow student in John Nall (6-4, 6-4) and sophomore Seth Gilliland defeating junior Ayden Taylor (4-6, 7- 5, (10-5)) in an endurance struggle for eternity.
Seth Gilliland’s comeback was one of the most important games of the day, Brooks said.
After losing a heartthrob in the first set, he went 3-0 up to start the second when he finally got himself into a groove. But as quickly as his lead materialized, it faded as Taylor won four straight games to take a 4-3 lead.
It was a back-and-forth, but Seth Gilliland prevailed – thanks to his ability to simply wear down his opponents – and forced the match tiebreak, which he won 10-5.
“Coming back in that tiebreak was crucial because it gave us our fourth singles win and it was sorely 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’ve gotten a little bit into the year, here lately, we’ve beaten some people and everyone’s gotten a lot better,” added Hackney, “Especially Seth (Gilliland) and Jonny (Martin). You’ve made as much progress as I have, although my results may look a little better. They have improved as much as me, if not more.”
Seth Gilliland’s victory gave the Bears a 4-2 match lead after the singles, meaning they only needed a double win to seal the win and end the excitement.
Instead, they got two of them.
Hackney retaliated alongside Jacob Gilliland against the Oldham/Blake Foley duo in an impressive 8-2 win that propelled the Bears to the next round.
“I think I made up (the singles loss) in doubles,” said Hackney. “I broke once, but we still managed the match well.”
Chatham Central pairing Thomas/Martin also won their doubles match against Brock Foley/Nall – after nearly losing a 4-1 lead early in the game – with a 9-7 score.
In the end, the Bears returned to Bear Creek with a 6-3 win and relieved smiles on their faces.
Although they have to prepare for another road trip to Durham on Wednesday, Brooks said they’re just excited to see another day.
“Honestly, I was just happy to win the first round…then we beat North Moore in a rain delay last week and I don’t even remember how many tiebreakers there were, but we had tons of tiebreakers,” Brooks said . “These guys have come and they are ready. And they make school history.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.