The Charlotte Catholic girls tennis program had a nice three-year run in Class 4A as the Cougars went 58-9 overall, but the story always had the same ending as they were knocked out by Myers Park each year, including last season in the Western Regional finals.
This season the Cougars had moved down to Class 3A tennis, but that didn’t mean they were going to have any easier of a schedule.
To open the season the Cougars traveled to Raleigh to play in a tournament featuring Myers Park, host Cardinal Gibbons and 4A power Page. Those teams ended up going 61-7 on the season this year, and they each took their turn beating Charlotte Catholic, although the Cougars pushed Cardinal Gibbons and Page to 5-4 matches.
“We wanted to make that start a positive experience and we wanted it to shape us,” Charlotte Catholic coach Jo Cabana said. “We knew going into that tournament that we didn’t have our doubles teams set yet and we were just kind of going off what we did last year, so we looked at the experience part of it. Regardless of the outcome, we just wanted the tennis and to see how we compared.”
The Cougars hadn’t started a season 0-3 in some time, but from there they kept getting better and better.
One of the main reasons for the improvement was a big-time lineup change Cabana made at No. 1 and No. 2 doubles after the tournament.
Seniors Lizzy Fiepke and Catie Nelson had played No. 1 doubles for the Cougars the past two years, and had posted a 38-5 record together, playing in the state tournament each season and reaching the semifinals last year.
But Cabana played off a hunch and decided to split them up.
“We felt like our singles lineup was good to go right from the beginning and that played pretty consistent all year long,” she said. “I thought for us to have a chance we needed to put one of them at No. 1 and the other at No. 2 and they were fine with it. I think they actually wanted a chance to play with someone new. They’re team players and it’s all about the team. That’s what Charlotte Catholic tennis is all about. I wouldn’t have asked them to play with someone new if it wasn’t the best thing for the team and they never complained about it once.”
After the switch the Cougars reeled off six straight wins against some of the Southern Carolinas Conference’s lesser teams, winning those matches by a combined 53-1 score.
But as perennial 3A title contender and two-time defending state champion Marvin Ridge approached on the schedule on Sept. 12, Cabana said her team came totally together in a 5-4 win.
“It’s a very, very tough conference,” she said. “I bet three of the top four 3A teams in the state are in our conference. I was so impressed with this group of girls who constantly rallied. The first time we played Marvin Ridge we were down 4-2 going into the doubles and I had just put those doubles teams together, but we won at 1,2 and 3 to get to 5-4. That win right there started us and put us on the path for the rest of the season.”
“From there we played Marvin Ridge 7-2, we played Weddington 5-4 twice and that’s when we looked back at the matches we played in the beginning of the year in Raleigh really helped us.”
The Cougars would meet Weddington again in the dual team playoffs, but won 5-1 setting up a match with Concord in the regional final.
The Cougars won 5-3, but opted to play the match out for a 5-4 win to advance to their first state championship appearance since 2012 when they beat Nash Central.
In the championship against East Chapel Hill, 3A individual state champion Rose Kenney pushed her opponent to a tiebreaker and won in the extra set to get the Cougars up 4-2 entering doubles play.
Fittingly, Cabana switched her doubles rotation back to let Fiepke and Nelson close their careers together, and they ended up clinching Charlotte Catholic’s 11th title since 1990.
But it was a complete team effort.
Kenney went 22-6 at No. 1 singles, but Nelson (15-9), Fiepke (22-2), Logan Stuckey (21-2), Domenica Moreno (18-5) and Carly Barhorst (19-3) played great all year. Cabana’s doubles decision paid off as the Cougars went 62-10 in doubles play led by Morgan McElhaney and Stucky (14-0) and Barhorst and Nelson (12-1).
After an 0-3 start, the Cougars reeled off 22 straight wins to finish 22-3 and atop the 3A tennis world once again.
“We had been in 4A for four years, so we were back in 3A and excited to be back and we wanted to see what we could do, but it was tough,” Cabana said. “We’ve always played Weddington and Marvin Ridge, but we’ve never had to beat them three times like we had to with Weddington.
“Nothing was ever a sure thing and nothing was ever a given. We never took any match for granted and the kids always knew when they stepped on the court they were part of the team. To be back at the state tournament was a victory in it of itself, but to win was great. I felt such joy for the whole team, but particularly for the seniors.”