Brooks calls Bears ‘hungry’ amid upcoming revenge tour

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The Chatham Central Bears had one of their best all-around tennis seasons in school history last year, with the women’s team making it to the third round of the dual-team playoffs — along with a doubles team that made it to the state title match — and the men’s team taking a sub-.500 regular season record into a Cinderella run to the dual-team regional finals as a No. 12 seed.

With the women’s tennis season fast approaching and the Bears retaining five of their top six players from last year, some questions still remain: Will the duo of seniors Livvy Brooks and Ellie Phillips avenge last year’s doubles state title loss? Will the Bears get revenge on Chatham Charter, who handed them their only three losses last season, including in the postseason’s third round? Does the Bears’ previous experience make them the favorite to come out of the East?

This week, the News + Record spoke with Heather Brooks, head men’s and women’s tennis coach at Chatham Central, to discuss these questions and more, gaining insight on the journey that was the 2021-22 season, the idea of being both a mother and a head coach and expectations for this upcoming season.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Last year, your team had just three losses, made it to the dual-team semifinals and had a doubles team that finished as state runners-up. How would you describe that journey?

HEATHER BROOKS: The journey last year was just amazing. We set out a goal, just to play our best and our hardest each match. And we came in and we lost that first match to Chatham Charter and the girls were just really down on themselves, but they were able to pick themselves up and come back in and start winning again. Unfortunately, our three losses were all to Chatham Charter. We lost twice in the regular season and the third round of the playoffs to them. I feel like this year we will be much stronger because we are seasoned. Our top five of our top six are returning, so they’re ready. They understand the postseason play now and I think they’re all hungry. I think, especially my three seniors — Livvy Brooks, Ellie Phillips and Jaylee Williams — they want to put it all out there. They’re ready to get some work done and go further in the postseason.

Since you’re returning five of your top six players from last year, how do you feel that last season’s deep postseason run will help the team push itself even further this year?

I think that this year, they’re all going to feel better about going out on the court. They’re not going to have those nerves that a lot of first-year athletes playing in the top six have because they’re now veterans in the top six. And I think that’ll ease their nerves and help us be stronger down at the bottom, at the four, five and six spots. If you’re strong down there, you’re a pretty well-rounded, strong team.

We’re hoping that those four, five and six players come out strong. I know last year’s seven, eight and nine, they worked in the offseason and took some lessons, so one of them, I’m sure, is ready to step in to that open spot and take over, plus I don’t know who we might have come out.

When it came to Livvy Brooks and Ellie Phillips making it to the doubles state title match, it’s clear that they improved mightily from their sophomore to their junior seasons. How did you see them grow last season?

Their sophomore year was that weird COVID year where we played two weeks after school was out in the middle of June and then turned back around and started in August. So, they really didn’t have an offseason. But they played during what would have been their offseason because we were still playing during that season. And I think that really helped them improve a lot from their sophomore to junior year. Also, they play a lot with some of our boys tennis players, which has helped them tremendously on their ground strokes and the speed that they hit the ball and the power that they have behind it, along with their strategy. I think that’s what really helped improve them from sophomore to junior year.

Now, they both feel like they really only have one goal now and it’s to get to that state championship final and win it this time. And I think if they’re able to make it to the final, they will be a different team because they’ve had that experience, they’ve played on that main center court and they just know what it feels like. And, no matter what happens, they’re gonna go out and enjoy their senior year. We’ve talked about it many times together and I’ve said, “Go out and enjoy your senior year, stay hungry, do what you want to do and leave a name for yourself. Keep making school history.”

What’s it going to take for Livvy and Ellie to make that jump and potentially win the doubles state title this season?

This year, when it comes to the fundamentals of the tennis game, I think they’re fine. In the state championship last year, they had a hard time finishing points, so we’re really going to work on finishing the points and some strategy on just putting the point away and not playing it out until somebody makes an unforced error. Their confidence is here this year because they are the seniors and this is their fourth year playing tennis. In their freshman year, they came in and they played in the five and six spots, and they were a strong five and six. I believe I went through it and they’ve only lost like four doubles matches in their entire high school career together, which is pretty amazing. They’re like sisters out there working. They don’t even have to talk, they know where each other is going to move. I think that together, Ellie and Livvy are probably going to be a pretty big powerhouse.

Not only are you Livvy’s coach, but you’re also her mom (and your assistant coach, Wendy Phillips, is Ellie’s mom). As a mother, what are you going to make sure you do to soak up this last season of her playing tennis at Chatham Central?

It’s going to be hard because we both have four other daughters on the court, too, so it’s hard to coach as a mom. In the state championship round last year, we probably took it in more as parents than we did as coaches. We went down and coached, but when we were up in the stands, we really took it in as, “Those are our daughters out there.” So, we will do that, but it’s hard because I can’t coach Livvy just like it’s difficult for Wendy to coach Ellie. Neither one of them want to hear what their moms have to say, so we usually take the other child. I think we’re going to just have to find a balance between being moms and being coaches this year. We’ll find it and we’ll have fun and, hopefully, the whole team will just go far. My goal is to make it to regionals and I think we should be able to make it to regionals for dual-team in the East. And if we can win regionals, I’m not sure what Voyager Academy is returning, they were the runners-up to Chatham Charter last year. I think we could make it to the state championship and play one of the nice powerhouses from the West. I think we’re going to ride it as both a mom and a coach and cheer them on and push them at the same time.

When it comes to this upcoming season, who are some of the players that you’re excited to see grow or those that you expect will impress you?

Jaylee Williams and Rachel Albright. They went to the state tournament last year as a doubles team and I expect a lot from them this year because they have that experience. Lauren Caviness, who played number six, she has really worked this offseason. We have worked a lot with her on the mental aspect, like forgetting when you lose a point. She has played in some tournaments, too, and I think that’s going to help her a lot. Then, the ones who weren’t in the top six, like Halle Webster and Emma Townsend, I know they’ve been really working in the offseason, so we’ll have to see who makes it to the top six. Any of those that were outside the top six last year could do it.

Your first match is coming up here pretty soon, on Aug. 15 against Rosewood. Are you feeling ready for that one?

I hope so. We’re not starting the first day of practice because Wendy and I are taking Livvy and Ellie on two college tours that day, so we’re not starting that day, but we’re starting the next day. We’ll do our normal practice early in the morning, but then we’ll do open courts in the afternoon for anybody who wants to come out to hit and get the practice in. When I set up the schedule this year, I made it pretty heavy because our conference, I’m not always sure every team is going to have a tennis team. Last year, Graham and Cummings did not, so that’s us losing four matches. That makes a big difference in your schedule when you’re starting to talk about regionals and getting girls placed. We’ve got a pretty tough non-conference we’re playing. Southern Lee, I believe twice, Lee County twice, Rosewood from Goldsboro twice, Chatham charter twice. I’ve really tried to make the schedule a little bit more heavy with stronger competition so that they have experience. We’re also playing in the Preseason Super Scrimmage on Aug. 11 in Greene County, so that will be against three teams. We’re going to be the only 1A team going and we’ll play there. That’ll last about four hours and it’ll really give me an idea of what we have on that Aug. 11 before we start match play on Aug. 15. And it will give the girls time to have three matches under their belt before we actually start what counts and let them get the nerves out.

For these seniors, in their freshman year, they were the regional runners-up in the West, losing to Pine Lake Prep. Nothing would make me happier for these three seniors being regional champions and making it to the state dual-team finals this year. Because they’ve worked hard.

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