Improving Hawks exceed expectations in inaugural season, suffer 1st round upset to Phoenix

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PITTSBORO — The Seaforth Hawks accomplished a lot in their inaugural men’s tennis season.

An 8-3 overall record.

An undefeated (6-0) conference season.

A conference title.

A couple of regional qualifiers.

And their reward for such an impressive start? A date with the defending champions.

The No. 5 Hawks’ season came to an end in a match with the No. 12 Raleigh Charter Phoenix, 8-1, in the first round of the NCHSAA 2A Dual-Team State Championships on April 27 in Pittsboro.

It may be categorized as an upset based on seeding, but Raleigh Charter was far from an underdog.

“I thought that we played pretty well,” PJ Petrides, the Hawks’ first-year head coach, said following the loss. “I knew Raleigh Charter had a really strong program — I looked and saw that all of their losses were close and to top schools — so I knew it was going to be tough today. But I think all of our players exceeded my personal expectations.”

While the Phoenix didn’t win the 2A state title in 2021, they’re still technically the defending champs.

Last season, the dual-team portion of the postseason was canceled as part of the COVID-altered NCHSAA schedule. But in 2020, the Phoenix were named 1A co-champions alongside the Pine Lake Prep Pride after the tournament was cut short due to the pandemic.

And in the individual bracket last season, the Phoenix had one of its duos — seniors Griffin Whalen & Ethan Meyerhoffer — win the doubles state title.

It’s safe to say that they’re no stranger to big matches.

“Our conference [the Super Six 1A/2A] is loaded, so every match was a battle for us this year,” Ryan Griffin, the Phoenix’s longtime head coach, said. “We’re used to those big environments and those long, hard matches. Doing that in the regular season really prepared us for today.”

The Phoenix are led by a pair of upperclassmen in junior Ryan Hill and senior Alex Hong who have put themselves through a gauntlet this season against teams like North Carolina School of Science & Math and Research Triangle, both in the Super Six.

They’re undoubtedly better for it.

“For Ryan, this is his first year (in the number one spot), so he’s had to take on a much tougher schedule. Every school, no matter who they are, has that one guy that can play, so he’s never going to have a night off,” Griffin said. “He’s got to bring it every day. He’s gotten used to that.”

Hill (11-5) and Hong (14-2) have both excelled in singles this season, taking on their opponents’ top players and, more often than not, coming away with a victory, which has helped breed confidence among the Phoenix’s stars.

There was no shortage of determination from both of them in their matches against Seaforth’s No. 1 singles player, sophomore Walker Magrinat (8-3), and No. 2 in sophomore Felton Burleigh (6-5).

Hill was praised by both Petrides and Griffin for his serve, which Magrinat said had him wide-eyed the first time he went up against it.

“I couldn’t really break him because his serve was so good,” Magrinat said with a tinge of disbelief. “And then I missed some first serves, which led him to get some easy balls to win a lot of points on my serve.”

Hill’s technical ability — most notably his serve and forehand — was the key to downing Magrinat in just two sets: 6-2, 6-1.

Oftentimes, even when Magrinat felt he’d stolen a point from Hill, whether it was slicing it to the corner or knocking it seemingly beyond his reach, he’d come back with a return over his shoulder or between his legs and force Magrinat to make a play.

For Magrinat, it was equal parts frustrating, deflating and jaw-dropping.

“I just couldn’t put him away,” Magrinat said with an awe-filled smile on his face. “He’s just so good. He hit some over-the-head, over-the-shoulder shots and I’m just like, ‘Come on.’ … It feels like you’ve won the point and then he hits it over and you’ve got to start over.”

“I thought Walker played pretty well overall, the guy he was playing just has a really big serve and forehand,” Petrides added. “To be honest, that’s been Walker’s kryptonite this year. We’ve tried to work on his return game and it’s been a long process to get where he’s at right now. I’m proud of the way he handled himself today and all season.”

Hong was mostly calm, cool and collected for the Phoenix in the singles portion of the match, cruising to a 6-2, 6-0 upset of Burleigh behind his topspin-heavy returns.

“Alex is a senior and he’s been doing this for four years for us,” Griffin said. “He’s probably the mentally toughest kid I’ve ever coached before. Nothing bothers him in any big moment and he’s been in every kind of scenario. It’s business as usual for him every time he comes on the court.”

Burleigh gave credit to Hong while also lamenting his own mistakes, which he credited partly to his opponent’s skill and partly to his team’s lack of practice time during spring break the previous week.

“On a good day, (Hong) could probably beat their number one,” Burleigh said. “He put a lot of topspin on his balls. And coming off of spring break, a lot of my shots that I had to be really precise with just weren’t there. I missed a lot of shots I shouldn’t have, which was the main problem. … Just coming off of spring break was tough for everybody, no one played too well.”

The Phoenix saw their top six singles players tear through the Hawks’ lineup, with freshman Lex Gu defeating freshman Matthew Bowser (6-1, 6-0), sophomore Marshall McClure defeating sophomore Logan Ching (6-1, 6-2), sophomore Joshua Lee defeating freshman Broden Jones (6-1, 6-1) and sophomore Shreyas Raychaudhuri defeating sophomore Shivam Patel (6-2, 6-1) to round out the singles portion.

By the time the Hawks made it to doubles, they were already down 6-0 with just three matches to play. A comeback was impossible.

Yet, some of Seaforth’s biggest bright spots came in doubles.

The No. 1 duo of Magrinat/Burleigh took a couple of games off of Hill/Hong before ultimately falling, 8-2, in a match where the Hawks’ underclassmen showed a lot of fight.

That was followed by an 8-1 shellacking from Raleigh Charter’s Lee/sophomore Daniel Kim against Bowser/Jones that was never particularly close.

However, in what was one of the longest matches of the day, Seaforth’s No. 3 doubles team — consisting of Ching & freshman Brennan Luster — downed Raleigh Charter’s senior duo of Ian Bracken & Brandon Finch, 8-6, to get the Hawks on the board and avoid the shut out.

“I guess we technically finished our season with a match win,” Petrides said with a chuckle. “That was awesome. Brennan and Logan got us on the board at No. 3 doubles and I’m so proud of those guys.

“I’m going to give the game ball for today’s match to Logan Ching,” Petrides added. “Logan actually played the best match he’s played all year. I know he didn’t win in singles, but his shots, his game plan, he listened to everything I had to say and he gave it his best effort.”

Once Petrides gave his post-match speech and all of the players had left the court, he offered a bit of reflection on the season — one where his team, despite the first-round exit, had exceeded every expectation he’d set.

For a first-year program full of fairly inexperienced freshman and sophomore players, winning a match here and there would be considered a successful inaugural year.

But the Hawks, with eight match victories and a Mid-Carolina 1A/2A conference title under their belts, knocked it out of the park in Year 1.

“I didn’t have many expectations going into the season, I wasn’t sure how our conference was,” Petrides admitted. “Once we started the season, I saw that we could do some damage, we could do some work. And we really got better as the season went on.

“This was so much fun,” Petrides added, smiling. “Seeing some of them interact with me and seeing them grow, maturity-wise, has been such a treat. And they want to get better at tennis, they’re just so ready for it. I just wish we had more time. It was a great season.”

For one of Seaforth’s top players, however, the season hasn’t ended just yet.

This Friday, Magrinat will compete in the singles bracket of the two-day NCHSAA 2A State Championships tournament at Ting Park in Holly Springs, where he’ll face off against Greene Central’s William Drake (13-2) in the opening round.

He qualified after placing in the top four in the 2A Mideast Regionals last weekend.

“He’s very engaging and wants to get better,” Petrides said of Magrinat when speaking on his coachability. “To have someone like that that wants to get better who’s so young, so green and just wants to soak it up, it just rubs off on everyone else.”

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

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