April 24, 2014

Dalton boys, girls tennis teams advance in 4A state

Shazman Ali found himself in a situation that was familiar in more than one way. For Olivia Dinges, the opportunity was new.

But both came through Wednesday as depth helped Dalton High School’s boys and girls tennis teams win in the opening round of the Class 4A state tournament.

In midday matches played at Lakeshore Park in Dalton, the Lady Catamounts beat LaGrange 3-2 and the Catamounts beat LaGrange 3-0 to set up second-round matchups today at Atlanta’s Marist. The girls will play first at noon, with the boys match to follow.

Both Dalton teams are runners-up in Region 7-4A, while Marist swept the Region 6-4A championships.

On Wednesday, the Lady Cats (11-10) didn’t need much more than an extended lunch break to advance past LaGrange (14-7), wrapping up their win in a little more than an hour. The Catamounts (16-5) pushed the two-hour mark against the Grangers (12-9) despite making quick work of the doubles courts as No. 1 Will Alderman and Ryan Harper won 6-0, 6-2, against Garrett Cashwell and Tony Choi, and No. 2 Thomas DeLay and Sam Dyer won 6-3, 6-0, against Jas Singh and Canon Skinner.

It was Ali who cut the tension in the three remaining singles matches by delivering a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Clay Dodson.

A senior, Ali lost to Dodson in straight sets earlier this season in a 3-2 Dalton victory at the LaGrange Invitational. But that wasn’t the only manner of redemption he earned with Wednesday’s win.

“Last year in the second round at state, I won the first set and lost the second and third set. That was our season ending,” Ali said. “Today was awesome.”

Ali was aware of the pressure he faced this time around, too — playing in the middle court between two teammates for whom victory was anything but certain, he couldn’t help but figure out he might be the difference.

At No. 3 singles, LaGrange’s P.J. Alford won the first set 7-6 (5) over Nathan Bryant, although the Dalton senior was ahead 3-0 when the overall match was called because of Ali’s win. At No. 1 singles, Dalton’s Jacob Johnson won the opening set 6-4 over Connor Mahan but dropped the second 6-2 and was trailing 4-1 in the third.

When Ali and Dodson changed over with Ali ahead 4-3 in the second set, Dalton coach David Hilley encouraged Ali to be aggressive rather than wait on mistakes.

Three games later, he was walking off the court to congratulations.

“Of course you feel a bit more pressure, because it’s state and if you lose you’re done,” Ali said. “But you have to deal with it and keep playing and try to beat your guy.”

Dinges, a junior who is in her first season as a varsity starter, didn’t have state experience to call on as she found herself fighting for the last team point up for grabs Wednesday. And as a No. 3 singles player on a team that has enjoyed more success than frustration this year, it’s not often that she has had to play with the match in the balance.

With Dalton assistant coach Steve Sparks encouraging her from courtside — he reminded her to keep her feet moving when she faltered in the second set against Abigail Brock — Dinges tried not to dwell on the weight of the outcome.

“I obviously knew I was the last one left, so I just kind of tried not to put too much thought into that and just finish playing,” Dinges said, “because I didn’t want to worry too much about that.”

Whether it was happy feet or a content mind, she secured a 6-0, 6-4 victory. Coupled with Dalton’s other singles win — No. 2 Anna Grace Wilson beat Katie Bryant 6-0, 6-0 — and a No. 2 doubles win from Shelby Fromm and Mary Margaret Snipes, who topped Lauren Kuerzi and Euna Oh 6-3, 6-1, it extended the Lady Cats’ season.

LaGrange’s Katie Graham beat Chandler Renz 6-1, 6-0 at No. 1 singles, while Jia Lee and Jordan Reese won 6-2, 6-0, against Caroline Calfee and Mackenzie Creswell at No. 2 doubles.

“When the girls got in the region tournament, there were a lot of question marks,” Hilley said. “And Olivia played extremely well in the region tournament, and I think she gained a little confidence from that and it carried over to today. ... She was able to keep her focus.”

While the wins kept the Cats and Lady Cats going for at least one more day, both teams also seemed happy to give Hilley a little more time.

Dalton’s coach since 2003, Hilley is stepping down after this season, ending a tenure that has included a trip to state for both the Cats and Lady Cats every season as well as more than 300 total victories.

Ali was glad he helped add another one to that pile.

“(Hilley is) really important to Dalton tennis,” Ali said. “I came out as a freshman and wasn’t that good, and he helped me get better. ... Even if you’re the last person on the team, he cares just as much about you as the No. 1 or No. 2 starting varsity. Great coach. I love playing for him.”

Hilley doesn’t seem to mind keeping this season going as long as possible, either.

“It will be tough when it’s over with,” he said. “But it’s not over with today.”

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