Rocky Mount High supplanted Nash Central atop the Big East Conference last season and ushered in yet another new era.
The Gryphons return five of the six players who comprised the team that finished as co-champions with Wilson Hunt a year ago and finished at No. 4 in the state poll. The lone exception is Tanner Brice, who graduated after a successful 2013 season during which she won the Big East doubles title and made it to the state semifinals with her sister Chandler. That experience makes Rocky Mount the team to beat in the Big East this season, and the expectations are sky-high from its coach.
“We should have a really good team,” coach Barry Nethercutt said. “We’ve started out the year playing really well and we’ll continue to get better.
“Almost everyone should get to the regional tournament either as a singles or doubles player, and we could four or five girls to the state tournament.”
The Gryphons opened play this past week with a 5-4 victory against Topsail on Aug. 21 before heading out to the Port City Invitational during the weekend. Rocky Mount finished third as a team in the competition behind perennial powers Raleigh Cardinal Gibbons and East Chapel Hill.
Chandler Brice will once again be playing No. 1 singles for the Gryphons as the junior looks to match her success last season on the doubles court as an individual. Classmate Eliza Fike will slot in right behind her at No. 2 singles and will look to continue her torrid pace from last season when she didn’t drop a single match in conference play.
Through just a few matches, Nethercutt said he’s seeing improvement from his top two players as the season starts.
“Chandler is hitting the ball great,” Nethercutt said. “She played some of the best tennis I’ve ever seen her play [Saturday] afternoon.
“[Eliza] seems to be playing much smarter this year, staying in points better [and] not overhitting the ball as much as she did last year.”
Brice and Fike will team up to create the No. 1 doubles pairing this season, but after that it’s a bit hazy for Nethercutt.
He paired his No. 3 and No. 4 singles players together along with his No. 5 and No. 6 players, and although the two tandems played well, Nethercutt did not rule out trying to adjust those two duos as the season progresses.
Still, Nethercutt is confident his top doubles pairing will make some noise.
“I think the two of them could make a run in the state tournament to the semifinals or finals,” Nethercutt said. “I’d love to see what they could do at the state tournament in doubles.”
Although Brice and Fike will be the Gryphons top players, the team’s leadership will come from seniors Allison Binkley and Katie Mizelle. The pair might not grab the spotlight with their play too often, but Nethercutt was complimentary of their work ethic and leadership qualities. He said Binkley and Mizelle’s familiarity with his coaching style allows the pair to trust him and convince their teammates to trust in what he is telling them, whether it’s in a drill during practice or executing a certain shot during matches.
Elsewhere around the region, Tarboro is looking to repeat last season’s success after being named co-champions of the Two Rivers Conference.
However, the Vikings will be extremely young and inexperienced under first-year coach Rick Norville with the exception of senior Hannah Whitehurst and junior Kaylyn Norville. The duo will return as the No. 1 doubles team and is looking to improve upon their quarterfinals appearance at last year’s 1-A state tournmaent.
Kaylyn Norville was undefeated in singles play and Whitehurst only fell once, so it will be up to those two players to help Tarboro contend with Williamston Riverside, who will likely be the class of the Two Rivers Conference in 2014.
1. Chandler Brice, Jr., Rocky Mount High: Brice teamed with her sister Tanner to win the Big East Conference doubles championship last season and advanced to the NCHSAA 3-A state semifinals as a tandem. Tanner graduated, so it will be up to the younger Brice to help lead the Gryphons’ charge to remain on top of the Big East Conference.
2. Julia High, So., Rocky Mount Academy: High is clearly the Eagles’ top player, having played at No. 1 singles for two seasons and putting together a sterling record. She’s the 65th-ranked singles player in the state in the U-16 division, so she has the talent to make an impact this season.
3. Eliza Fike, Jr., Rocky Mount High: Fike was unbeaten in conference singles play last season, which helped her qualify for the state tournament. She’ll be more of a team leader this season for the defending Big East champions and likely pair with Brice in doubles.
4. Kaylyn Norville, Jr., Tarboro: Norville was arguably the Vikings’ best player last year in conference play and did not drop a singles or doubles match during the Two Rivers season. She will team up with Hannah Whitehurst again this year at doubles, and the duo will need to be nearly flawless for Tarboro to have much success.
5. Hannah Whitehurst, Sr., Tarboro: Whitehurst had a strong 2013 for the Vikings, never losing in doubles and lost just once in conference singles play. If the Vikings are going to return to the state tournament as a team, Whitehurst will need to continue her stellar play from a year ago.
Sports writer Josh Walfish can be reached at 407-9952 or email@example.com