The Fike High boys tennis team came within a championship (match) point of claiming total 2016 supremacy in the 3-A Big East Conference on a hot Wednesday afternoon on the Barton College courts.
However, Rocky Mount sophomore Tyler Brice laced a winner to deny the Golden Demons duo of sophomore John Gliarmis-junior Michael Anders the championship point in the 10th game of the third set, and Brice teamed with sophomore George Shannon to rally to a 2-6, 6-1, 7-6(5) victory to seize the doubles championship in a showdown of the top two seeds.
Fike entered as the Big East team champion and, earlier in the afternoon, senior Sunny Sandhu, the No. 1 seed, captured the singles championship by a 6-1, 6-3 count against Northern Nash senior X’Zavier McDaniel, the No. 2 seed.
“That would have been special,” said veteran coach Lee Matthews of the possibility of his Demons registering team, singles and doubles dominance in the same season. “I don’t know that it’s ever been done before. We usually excel in one aspect and struggle in the other two.
“I’m pleased; we have an entry on both sides of the regional field. But getting to match, championship point and it not happening... that’s tough.”
By winning a tense, emotion-pent struggle of some two hours, Brice-Shannon upped its record to 15-1. The top-seeded Gryphons ousted Hunt seniors Jacob Saunders-Jess Merrick, 6-4, 6-2 in the semifinals.
Saunders-Merrick, the only unseeded entry to reach the semifinals, departed 5-7 and with a berth to next weekend’s 3-A East Regional. All singles and doubles semifinalists qualified for the regional.
“We were hitting good shots,” Merrick reviewed. “We volleyed and served well all through the tournament.”
Added Saunders: “We seemed to be playing better (in the tournament). Today, we were still playing well, but they are a very good team. They became more consistent and really stepped it up in the second set. We really wanted to have fun our senior year and we are pleased with how we played in each match.”
After a first-round bye, Merrick-Saunders sealed a regional berth by spilling the No. 4 tandem of Fike’s Walker Gliarmis-Baylor Parrish 6-2, 7-5 in the quarterfinals.
Seeded No. 2, Fike’s John Gliarmis-Anders dispensed with No. 3 Seth Whitley-Avery Johnson of Southern Nash, 7-6(6), 6-2 in the semifinals.
Matthews was uncertain the championship match would be played because of being forced to treat Anders for cramps.
But in the final, Fike whisked through the first set on the strength of Gliarmis’ blistering serves and well-placed volleys from Anders.
The momentum, however, suddenly shifted the second set. The Demons lost the opening game and never recovered.
Gliarmis-Anders demonstrated more energy in the third set, winning the first game and building a 4-2 lead. The mistake-prone Fike pair couldn’t preserve an early lead in the seventh game and dropped the eighth game after posting an 0-40 advantage.
“That was huge,” Shannon assured. “We just said we could not have any more unforced errors the rest of the game. We won five points in a row and won that game.”
The Gryphons surged from a 5-4 deficit — and championship point — to a 6-5 edge before the Demons forced the tiebreaker. Gliarmis-Anders (6-2) netted the first point in the seven-point tiebreaker and the score was knotted 3-3 and 4-4. However, the Demons could not shake off a stream of mistakes and, leading 5-4, lost three consecutive points — and the match.
“We didn’t play our game,” the weary Gliarmis assessed. “But give them credit, they went all out. I just tired out; I spent too much energy in that first set. We stopped hitting it hard and stopped moving. In the third set, we got a little energy back and got some momentum back. Momentum was the key.”
Although top-seeded, Brice-Shannon thrived with the awareness it received only a small portion of the fan support. The Gryphons were prone to understandable displays of emotion on occasion.
“We use it to work for us,” Shannon contended. “We like being the villian and coming into a hostile environment and getting a ‘W.’
“I think the first set was just nerves for us. We really started playing our game; and it seemed like they were playing scared. But they got it together and the third set got way more competitive. They started hitting shots they weren’t hitting in the second set. When we got into a groove, they was no stopping us. But they really turned it around in the third set.”
The Fike pair realized the Gryphons had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
“It was feeling like we were right there,” Gliarmis admitted, “but there was some turn to it. That’s just how the game goes. It was just a learning lesson.”
Added Anders: “It was a tough match and probably the best I’ve played all year. It was unreal to make it this far and it was really awesome with John.”
Sandhu (14-2) celebrated his first Big East singles crown after teaming with Reid Harris for the 2015 doubles title.
The Fike senior controlled the opening set with his signature style of limiting mistakes. Sandhu dropped a couple of games at the start of the second set but regained control by mixing defensive and offensive aggressiveness.
“I just wanted to keep the ball in play,” Sandhu noted. “Be defensive when I needed to be and, when the right opportunities came, be aggressive. Like always, I wanted to play smart and try to outsmart him. Against X’Zavier (13-4), I needed to balance my defense and aggressiveness.
“I lost a little bit of focus in the second set; I put a lot of energy into winning the first set. But I was able to recuperate and get back into it.
“I played really well. This is a testament to the dedication and hard work I have put into this sport for the last four years. It really showed and it’s a big accomplishment for me.”
And the highlight of a productive Fike week.
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3-A Big East Conference tournament results
(No. 1 seed) Sunny Sandhu (Fike) def. Coley Corbin (Northern Nash) 6-0, 6-0; Austin Luper (Nash Central) def. Glenn Jarvis (Northern Nash) 6-3, 6-0; (3) StuartWhitehead (Northern Nash) def. Jacob Glover (Southern Nash) 6-0, 6-1; Joe Benson (Fike) def. Nagee Wilkins (Nash Central) 6-1, 6-3; Blaize Graham (Southern Nash) def. Will Stanley (Northern Nash) 7-6 (7-5), 6-3; (4) Oliver Adcox (Northern Nash) def. Oliver Brown (Nash Central) 6-0, 6-0; Adam Moore (Nash Central) def. Brandon Bent (Northern Nash) 6-3, 6-2; (2) X’Zavier McDaniel (Northern Nash) def. Matt Brown (Fike) 7-6 (12), 6-4.
Sandhu def. Luper 6-0, 6-0; Whitehead def. Benson 6-4, 6-0; Adcox def. Graham 6-1, 6-0; McDaniel def. Moore 6-2, 6-2.