South Charlotte

Cougars go from rookies to champions

Charlotte Catholic girls' tennis coach Jo Cabana doesn't like to think about the beginning of the 2010 season. The defending N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A state champions had lost seven seniors from the year before, including five of their top six players.

The Cougars lost their first two matches at Country Day (5-4) and Salisbury (6-3) and started the season 1-3.

"They played like rookies," said Cabana, who has coached the team for eight years and won five of the Cougars' nine state titles.

Many of them were rookies.

All four freshmen, Maddie Wise, Rachel Tomchin, Baily Thomas and Grace Deering, played in the top six this season. At the end of the year, they weren't playing like rookies.

"Our team changed from playing scared to playing to win," said Cabana. "We just kept getting better and better with every match."

The team peaked at the right time, charging through the state playoffs and beating Cardinal Gibbons 5-1 in Burlington on Nov. 6 to win their second straight state title.

"It was a lot better (this year) because we had a lot of new players so to know we could come back and win states felt really good," said junior Ellie Bolton.

Bolton is an example of another major problem the Cougars faced in their title run: injuries. After playing in the No. 3 spot behind senior Ashley Verheim and Wise for the first half of the season, she went out with a foot injury and didn't return. Wise hurt her arm and was out for several weeks in the middle of the season.

The team was only at full strength for three matches, said Cabana.

With Bolton out, the freshmen were forced to play a bigger role for Catholic. Cabana said she saw a change in the freshman as the season went on.

"As the season progressed, they became confident in themselves and the record shows it," she said.

After the 1-3 start, the Cougars finished the season 12-7. Cabana said the turning point was at their second match against Country Day.

The first time Catholic faced Country Day at the beginning of the season, they had all of their top six players and lost 5-4. The second time, in the last match of the season, they were missing two players and they won 5-4.

After that match, Cabana thought, "Something is happening here, and it's good."

Cabana had a lot of confidence in her freshmen at the end of the season.

"I don't think they wanted to be seen as freshmen," she said. "They wanted to be seen as good tennis players."

Catholic played a tough schedule leading up to the playoffs, facing private school state champion Providence Day twice, Myers Park, a 4A state finalist, twice and South Mecklenburg, a 4A state semifinalist. They lost all of those matches, but Cabana said they learned more from those losses than from their wins and the tough competition prepared them for the state tournament.

The road to the championship wasn't easy for the Cougars. After beating Cox Mill 9-0 in the first round, Catholic faced one of the best 3A teams in the state, Marvin Ridge, and beat them 5-4. They beat Concord 5-1 in the third round and beat another top team, Weddington, in the semifinals 5-1.

In the championship match, Catholic's No. 1 player, Verhein, lost their only match. That didn't faze the team.

"We didn't for a second think we would lose," said senior Blaire Cunnane, who played in the No. 6 slot in the title match. They won the next five singles matches and didn't even have to play doubles.