Cox, Gilliland, Williamson qualify for regionals as Bears earn first conference title

BY VICTOR HENSLEY, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/2/21

BEAR CREEK — Chatham Central men’s tennis continues to add to its growing list of firsts.

On April 20, the Bears won their first match against the Union Pines Vikings in school …

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Cox, Gilliland, Williamson qualify for regionals as Bears earn first conference title

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BEAR CREEK — Chatham Central men’s tennis continues to add to its growing list of firsts.

On April 20, the Bears won their first match against the Union Pines Vikings in school history, 5-4, en route to their first-ever perfect regular season (9-0, 6-0 in Yadkin Valley).

And last Wednesday and Thursday, Chatham Central hosted its first Yadkin Valley Conference Tournament — reserved for the regular-season winner of the conference — and captured the school’s first doubles conference title to top it off.

Bears seniors Jayden Gilliland and Preston Cox — a duo which hasn’t lost a doubles match since their sophomore season — cruised to the YVC title, beating three opposing teams from North Moore, Uwharrie Charter and North Stanly without dropping a game, winning 36 straight.

“To have a doubles team that went without losing a game the entire tournament, that’s amazing,” said Heather Brooks, head coach of Chatham Central men’s and women’s tennis. “It’s good when you’ve found your doubles partner that you have that much chemistry with.”

To qualify for the 1A West Regionals in Elkin, a team (or individual) had to place in the top four of the YVC tournament. This meant that four individuals and four duos qualified for regionals simply by making it to Thursday’s YVC tournament semifinals.

Gilliland and Cox, who received a first-round bye, had little trouble qualifying after their second-round dominance on Wednesday, defeating North Moore’s duo of senior Josue Peralta and junior Miguel Lopez (6-0, 6-0) to advance to the semifinals on day two.

However, the Bears’ other doubles team, made up of seniors Caleb Webster and Pacen Dunn, were downed in the second round by Uwharrie Charter’s duo of junior Drew Auman and senior Carson Duggins (6-0, 6-3), coming up short in their quest for regionals.

Auman/Duggins didn’t get so lucky in the semifinals, though, facing a freight train in the form of Gilliland/Cox, who swept them (6-0, 6-0) with relative ease.

At one point in the second set, Gilliland pulled off another one of his signature no-look, behind-the-back, between-the-leg shots as the ball traveled out of play, hitting it exactly where he wanted it. The ball was returned, but Cox was there — playing bigger than his size — to guard the front of the net, catch his opponent off-guard and slam the ball in the opposite direction for the point.

After the match, one of either Auman or Duggins was overheard asking a question at the net as the two teams shook hands: “How long have y’all been playing together?”

It’s certainly a valid one, considering Gilliland and Cox have visible chemistry that could only come through years of friendship and practice.

“We’ve grown up together,” Gilliland said. “I think I’ve known him since I was less than 1 (year old), so we kind of know each other pretty well. … We’ve played together since our freshman year, but we didn’t look anything like this our freshman year. We’ve really come a long way.”

“We coached twin girls last year, and they just intuitively knew each other and where they’re going,” added Wendy Phillips, assistant coach for Chatham Central men’s and women’s tennis. “And (Gilliland and Cox) move together like twins. … They’re really special.”

Gilliland/Cox had a similarly easy time in the doubles championship, defeating the North Stanly duo of juniors Kaleb Burrage and Judson Busch (6-0, 6-0) to win the school’s first-ever men’s tennis conference title.

Gilliland and Cox often celebrate points with a simple tap of each other’s racket. There was no shortage of tapping throughout their three matches.

“It really means ‘good shot,’” Gilliland said. “It’s just to keep our confidence high because once those guys started getting in a hole, their heads just dropped and when you do that, you’re out of the match.”

On the singles side of things, Chatham Central had some success — one regional qualifier in junior Colby Williamson — but was unable to capture the singles title, which instead went to Uwharrie Charter junior Joseph Phetmixay.

After a sweeping win in the second round against South Davidson junior Hayden Smith (6-0, 6-0), Williamson met his doom in the semifinals against Uwharrie Charter sophomore Conner Kelly (6-3, 6-1) — who knocked out Bears freshman Jacob Gilliland, Jayden’s brother, in the first round — in a match where Williamson was never truly able to get into a rhythm.

Kelly plays a very methodical game and has no problem keeping a rally going for as long as he needs to, a stark difference from Williamson’s fast-paced style.

To further drive home the point: the championship match between Kelly and Phetmixay, two Uwharrie Charter teammates, was over two hours long.

“(Williamson) is more comfortable with (a faster) style of play because the guys he plays with are Jayden and Preston,” Phillips said. “(Kelly) is a guy that just keeps it in play and waits for you to make a mistake, so it was just something he’s not used to.”

Williamson faced off against North Stanly freshman Ameno Morgan in the third-place match, where he was able to find his confidence, play at his pace and earn a hard-fought win (6-1, 6-3).

In the second set, Williamson found himself in a 3-0 hole but battled back — aided by a mid-set wrist injury for Morgan — to win six straight games and take home third place in the YVC tournament.

Williamson, also a member of the Bears’ baseball team, is playing his first-ever competitive tennis this season thanks in part to the delayed start of baseball, which allowed him to play the entire tennis regular season unimpeded by another sport.

After qualifying for regionals — and boasting a 9-2 singles record this season — it’s safe to say it’s going pretty well.

“His athleticism buys him a whole lot because he runs everything down,” Phillips said. “He’s listened to us throughout the year about being more aggressive and making those approach shots, finishing at the net and taking advantage of his athleticism. It’s a combination of his athleticism, aggression and coachability.”

“I’ve had a bunch of fun,” added Williamson with a smile.

The 1A West Regionals are set to take place on Friday and Saturday (May 7-8) at Elkin Municipal Park in Elkin. Like the YVC tournament, the top four finishers in both the singles and doubles regionals will reach the NCHSAA 1A Men’s Tennis State Championships.

Chatham Central is used to playing in the East, but this year, the Bears will be in the West against almost an entirely different set of opponents.

“We really don’t know what to expect from these other teams because we’ve not played them before in regular-season play either,” Gilliland said. “We’ll definitely be tested at regionals. … We probably won’t cruise, but (qualifying for states) is the plan, that’s the goal.

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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