Rocky Mount High made its finish atop the Big East Conference official Thursday.
The Gryphons topped Northern Nash, 8-1, at Northern Nash High School, giving Rocky Mount a share of the conference title along with Wilson Hunt.
Rocky Mount’s conference title is its first since 2009.
“It was most definitely the goal,” Rocky Mount coach Barry Nethercutt said. “We talked about how we hadn’t won it in the past four years on the first day of practice. That was the first goal of the season, to win a conference championship, even if it is co-champions.”
Rocky Mount (15-2, 9-1 Big East) clinched the match in singles with No. 1 player Chandler Brice’s victory against Sarah Hinson.
Four other Gryphons already had completed straight-set victories before Brice, leaving her with a chance to clinch the title.
Brice was able to hold off Hinson in a close 6-4, 6-2, win, giving the Gryphons the five match wins they needed.
“I actually didn’t even know we (clinched) until I came off,” she said. “I think that’s what helped me play.”
Hinson and Brice went to deuce repeatedly, and many back-and-forth points went the way of Brice.
“I think she’s one of the best left-handers, and I think that’s what makes it a harder match for me,” Brice said of Hinson. “Her game, you can just never tell where she’s going with the ball. Sarah’s a good player and we both strike the ball, so that’s what makes it a good competition.”
Despite the score, Northern Nash (8-5, 6-4) presented Rocky Mount with tough competition at nearly every position. The Knights took early leads in several matches, forcing Rocky Mount to earn its victory.
Like the No. 1 singles match, No. 2 singles between Rocky Mount’s Eliza Fike and Northern Nash’s Isabel Marrero came down to a few key points. Fike eventually won the match, 6-7 (7-3), 6-3, 10-5, and the close matchup told the story of the day.
“We felt coming in that we had a pretty good chance to win this match,” Northern Nash coach Henry Drake said. “Rocky Mount played better in big points, and that was the whole match. They played better on big points.”
Nethercutt complimented the Knights for their improvement from the two teams’ first meeting, and said he was happy with his girls’ ability to stay in matches mentally.
“I tried to preach to the girls that I knew Northern was going to play much better than they did the first time,” Nethercutt said. “... Instead of being depressed Northern was playing so well, we picked our game up also.”
There is no wild card in the eastern half of the state this season, so the Knights’ season came to a close Thursday, and Northern Nash gave credit to the two teams which it finished behind.
“Two teams, Rocky Mount and Wilson Hunt, outplayed us both times,” Drake said. “My hat’s off to both of them.”
Rocky Mount shares the title with Wilson Hunt, which also finished 9-1 in the Big East.
The Gryphons and Warriors split their two regular season meetings.
The conference’s No. 1 seed in the NCHSAA 3-A playoffs is yet to be decided. The athletics directors from both schools will meet Tuesday to decide if the schools will play again or flip a coin to decide the No. 1 seed. The No. 2 seed almost certainly will have to travel to play Raleigh Cardinal Gibbons, the top-ranked team in 3-A.
Rocky Mount was knocked out of last year’s playoffs in the first round by Cardinal Gibbons.
Even if the Gryphons lose the tiebreak procedure and have to play the dominant Raleigh program, the Gryphons believe they would have to beat Cardinal Gibbons at some point anyway.
“We’re definitely hoping for farther than we went last year,” Chandler Brice said. “Like our coach said, we have to beat Cardinal Gibbons in order to move whether it’s the state finals or the first round.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com