BEAR CREEK —
There’s one sport at Chatham Central that’s flying under the radar this year.
And if you’re in Bear Creek, you might want to take notice.
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BEAR CREEK — There’s one sport at Chatham Central that’s flying under the radar this year.
And if you’re in Bear Creek, you might want to take notice.
The Bears’ men’s tennis team is quietly having its greatest season in school history, boasting a 7-0 record after a 9-0 sweep of the North Moore Mustangs in their latest match on Wednesday.
And there’s no sign of them slowing down.
“There’s something special happening here at Chatham Central,” said Wendy Phillips, assistant coach for the school’s men’s and women’s tennis teams. “This is the deepest we’ve ever been, from one to six.”
The Bears’ success is spearheaded by its top-two players, Jayden Gilliland and Preston Cox, both of whom are seniors who have yet to lose either a singles or doubles match all season.
Gilliland is dedicated to working on his craft, spending plenty of his downtime practicing tennis, along with watching some of the world’s best players — including 20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal — to try and learn from them, said Heather Brooks, the Bears’ head coach.
He’s Chatham Central’s top-ranked player for a reason. Namely, because he rarely loses, even against tough competition.
Since the start of his junior year, Gilliland is a combined 20-0 over his last 20 matches (10-0 singles, 10-0 doubles), all of which were played against his opponents’ top players. Wednesday was no different.
Playing against North Moore senior Jaleak Horne — just six days removed from rushing for 151 yards and two touchdowns in a football game against Chatham Central on April 8 — Gilliland did what he does best: silently dominate.
Using his powerful, yet controlled serve, Gilliland wore Horne down point-after-point, game-after-game, set-after-set. He smiled, didn’t talk a whole lot and won without dropping a game. The sun was beating down on the court, but he never seemed to feel the heat.
“Biggest thing was my serve,” Gilliland said. “Last match, my serve wasn’t all there and really, the serve opens up everything. I like to come to the net a lot, so when my serve’s on, that allows me to come to the net and finish points fast.”
At one point in the first set, as the ball bounced once on Gilliland’s side of the court and sailed out, he sprinted toward the ball, got in front of it and hit it backward, in between his legs. And he put it right where he wanted it, winning the point as Horne hit the net trying to return it.
“With that one, I didn’t have that much time to think about it so I just hit it,” Gilliland said.
“He’s been dying to do that,” added Brooks with a laugh.
Gilliland would go on to win 6-0, 6-0, cruising to his seventh singles victory this season.
Cox, his doubles partner, was right there with him.
Playing against North Moore freshman Owen Williams, Cox didn’t drop a single game en route to a 6-0, 6-0 victory. Like Gilliland, Cox is also undefeated since the start of his junior year (17-0) and is just as dominant.
He often puts topspin on the ball to hit it harder and tries to place it in the corners of the court, forcing his opponents to exert more energy throughout the match.
“I really focused on hitting it in the corners because making him run back and forth, it’s easier to get it past him or make him mess up,” Cox said.
In their double matches — in which they’re 7-0 this year after an 8-0 victory on Wednesday — Gilliland and Cox have created chemistry with one another that allows them to thrive and dissect opponents. To communicate, they often don’t even need to use words. They’ve got their own hand signals.
However, as great as those two are, the team’s success this season can be attributed to their depth, something they’ve never had quite like this.
Baseball season starting in late April this year, due to the NCHSAA’s alternate 2020-21 schedule, has allowed players to come over from baseball and try tennis. That includes both of the Bears’ third- and fourth-ranked players, junior Colby Williamson and freshman Jacob Gilliland, Jayden’s brother.
Williamson — who learned a lot about tennis from his older sister, Courtney Williamson, a 2016 doubles state champion for Chatham Central — comfortably won his singles match on Wednesday, 6-1, 6-0.
Jacob Gilliland won his singles match 6-1, 6-1, and together, the duo of Williamson and Gilliland won their doubles match, 8-2.
Rounding out the Bears’ lineup against the Mustangs was fifth-ranked senior Caleb Webster (won 6-4, 6-1) and sixth-ranked senior Pacen Dunn (won 6-0, 6-2) and together they captured Chatham Central’s third doubles win of the day, 8-3.
“It’s just taken a lot to encourage everybody because our sophomore year — and last year, but it got cut short — we would lose every match like 3-6,” Jayden Gilliland said. “(Me and Cox) would win our matches, and then everybody else would lose. So it was really just getting them to come out and play and get better, which they really have. Practice used to be boring for us because all we did was hit with each other, but now, it’s actually pretty fun.”
While the Bears’ recent success is cause for excitement around the men’s tennis program, it’s clouded by the cancellation of this year’s NCHSAA Dual Team Championships.
In September, the NCHSAA released details for its 2020-21 modified sports regulations, which included news about tennis and wrestling, stating that both sports will only host individual (or duo) championships this year, removing the team aspect entirely.
In a year where Chatham Central could have made noise in the playoffs as a team, they won’t even get a shot.
“It’s sad because I think we probably could have gone as far as the girls’ team did last year, which was to the regionals,” Brooks said. “The problem is, we’re in a (classification) with a lot of charter schools and private schools that have players who have played tennis all their lives. They’re tennis factories.”
Even without a team competition this year, the Bears have a chance to have multiple individuals and doubles teams go far in this year’s playoffs, starting with Jayden Gilliland and Cox.
Their playoff journey begins on April 28, when Chatham Central hosts the Yadkin Valley 1A conference tournament, then it’ll be on to 1A West regionals in Elkin.
“I feel like we can definitely make it to states if we’re playing good,” Jayden Gilliland said. “We should win the conference tournament. I think the top four from regionals go, so as long as we’re the top four in regionals, we should. And from what I’ve seen, I think three of the people that went to states from the last regionals graduated, so I think we’ve got a pretty good shot.”