By Chris Whitfield
It had been five years since Dalton High School tennis coach David Hilley had seen one of his teams bring home a region title. Seniors Courtney Morton and Kara Pendley weren’t going to let their coach go another year without celebrating.
Playing on their home-away-from-home courts at Lakeshore Park in Dalton, Morton and Pendley each swept singles matches and the No. 2 doubles team of Rachel Bakker and Caroline Calfee rolled to a 6-0 second-set victory after winning the first set in a tiebreaker to guide the Lady Catamounts to a 3-0 win over Cedartown in the Region 7-4A tournament’s title match Thursday.
“We knew we had to end this year better than in the past,” Morton said after winning 6-3, 6-2 at No. 1 singles. “We wanted to win region and make a run in state. It is big for us. We wanted to do it for coach Hilley since he hasn’t had a region title in five years. He wanted this and so did we, so we worked hard to get it.”
Hilley was happy to have another big trophy.
“I told them after the match they were going up on the wall of champions, and they can always point to that 2013 and say I was on that team,” Hilley said. “It is not something everyone can say. I was just proud to ride along with them and be part of it.”
The Lady Cats had little trouble in the tournament, and their three individual victories in the title match came via straight sets. At No. 2 singles, Pendley won 6-3, 6-2, while Bakker and Calfee won 7-6 (7-2), 6-0.
“It was close that first set but (Bakker and Calfee) hung tight and pulled out that tiebreaker,” Hilley said. “They were a little nervous in that first set, and then they loosened up a little bit and dominated the match.”
At No. 3 singles, Anna Grace Wilson was headed to a third set, while the No. 1 doubles team of Sheridan Fromm and Mackenzie Creswell were up 4-3 in the third set when the match was called.
The victory capped off a long day at the tournament, where River Ridge beat Dalton 3-2 in the boys championship match. In the girls bracket, Cedartown’s semifinal with LaFayette lasted more than three hours and forced the Lady Cats to bide their time before the championship.
“The waiting is definitely worse than the playing,” Morton said of the nearly five hours between matches for the Lady Cats. “But we always have fun and watched most of the guys’ match and cheered hard for them and then knew we had to go out and win it ourselves.”
With the play of their singles this year, the Lady Cats would have been hard-pressed to lose the title. Pendley is 16-1, while Morton has lost three times against top singles competitors.
“It is great to have those two out there and know that you can rely on them,” Hilley said. “They are such competitors and they have tons of leadership.”
The Lady Cats (14-3) will host Banneker next week in the first round of the state playoffs. The Cats (14-3) will host Grady in the first round after finishing as the runner-up.
River Ridge’s boys (15-5) entered the tournament with their only losses coming to Class 6A schools; they were also the only team to go unbeaten against region competition, topping Dalton 3-2 earlier this year in a crossover match that didn’t count in the sub-region standings.
River Ridge’s strength is at the top of its singles lineup in No. 1 Jeremy Mims and No. 2 Ben Van Holt, who both took straight-set victories against Dalton. But further down the card, Dalton had a much greater chance of getting the three victories needed to earn the title and the region’s top seed for the state tournament.
Dalton’s No. 2 doubles team of P.K. Bhatter and Will Alderman rolled to a 6-1, 6-3 victory to give each school an individual win after Van Holt came off the court first with a win. Mims was stretched in the second set, but made it past Jacob Johnson, 6-3, 7-5, to put River Ridge up 2-1. However, Dalton’s No. 3 singles player Shazman Ali knotted the match 2-2 with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Jack Hicks.
From there, it came down to No. 1 doubles and the team of B.J. Rowland and Thomas Delay for Dalton against River Ridge’s Clay McIntyre and Gabe Mims. The teams split the first two sets with Dalton winning the first 6-2 and River Ridge taking the second by the same score.
In the third set, the Knights’ duo took the first two games before Dalton was able to break serve and hold their own to tie it 2-2. Dalton edged ahead on serve, and the two teams traded wins back and forth until River Ridge was able to break and take a 5-4 lead. The Knights were then able to hold serve and win the title, 6-4.
“We won that first set, but we have had a hard time closing out,” Rowland said. “When we broke them and went up 3-2, I thought we had them, but then it was just back and forth and back and forth with a lot of momentum changes. We just weren’t making the shots.”
Up and down the lineup, Hilley said his team missed by the slimmest of margins.
“That is the way a championship is supposed to be, coming down to the third set of the last match,” he said. “We had our chances to win this thing. They are a good team, and we didn’t take advantage of some things, and a good team will make that hurt.”
Earlier in the day, Dalton’s girls beat Cass 3-0 in the region semifinals behind a singles win from Morton, 6-1, 6-1, and doubles victories from Fromm and Creswell, 6-1, 6-3, and Bakker and Calfee, 7-6 (8-6), 6-1. Pendley led 2-0 in the second set after losing the first on a 7-5 tiebreaker and Wilson led 7-5, 3-0 when the match was called.
The boys topped Cass as well in the semifinals, winning 3-0 with singles victories from No. 2 Nathan Bryant, 6-2, 6-3, No. 3 Ali, 6-1, 7-5, and a doubles win from No. 1 Rowland and Delay, 6-1, 6-1. No. 2 Bhatter and Alderman led 6-2, 3-6, 2-1 and No. 1 Jacob Johnson was behind 3-1 in the third set when the match was called.
River Ridge’s boys advanced to the title match with a 3-0 win over Heritage, while the Cedartown girls topped LaFayette 3-2.
In the boys consolation match, Cass beat Heritage 3-1, while Cass’ girls beat LaFayette 3-2 to take third place.