As temperatures fell and gray skies loomed overhead, Northern Nash’s tennis team never used the weather as an excuse. With no prompting from coach Zach Marks, the Knights spent their winter outside practicing in poor weather, certain the work would propel them to a Big East Conference championship.
That the Knights clinched the regular season conference title – with an 8-1 victory against Wilson Fike on Monday at Northern Nash High School – in blustery, miserable conditions was a fitting end.
“They were out here practicing in January and February, when it was windy and cold, and I never asked them to,” Marks said. “I think they honestly were more comfortable on a day like (Monday) instead of it being 80 (degrees) with the sun shining.”
The temperature fell into the 40s Monday by the time matches began. Wind gusts of more than 20 miles per hour and rain, which delayed the match for about 20 minutes midway through the singles competition, made playing circumstances more difficult.
Northern Nash (15-2, 10-0 Big East) had bigger concerns than the weather.
“Our team was so fired up and so ready to play this match, I really don’t think the weather had anything to do with it, really,” Michael Brackett, Northern Nash’s No. 1 singles player, said. “It might have been a little cold here and there, but we worked too hard to let this get away because of the weather.”
Northern Nash struggled to beat Wilson Fike (13-7, 8-2) in the two sides’ first meeting, with the Knights escaping with a 5-4 victory.
The Golden Demons were without No. 1 singles player Nick James, who missed the match with an illness, but the Knights cleaned up in the areas in which they struggled the first match.
Brackett and No. 3 singles player Tremel Davis each won easily, but the Knights rallied to win every other singles match.
“Our two through six singles all played the same guy they played last time,” Marks said. “We went 3-2 last time and 5-0 this time. I couldn’t be prouder of the way we played (Monday).”
No. 2 singles player Julian Marrero lost the first set to Drayton Williams but controlled the rest of the match.
He evened the score with a 6-2 second set, then dominated the tiebreak, 10-3.
Josiah Marshall and Matthew Outlaw each cruised to victory in the second set after winning close first sets to end any championship drama before it manifested.
Eric Joyner provided the exclamation point at No. 6 singles, outlasting Reid Harris, 7-5, in a back-and-forth second set to complete the singles sweep.
“Every time, it was like, ‘Man, I have to get this next point because I think he’s going to break my serve,” Joyner said. “It was a close match, but we did a really good job of picking each other up as a team. That helps when you’re playing another good team.”
Almost exactly a year removed from losing to the Golden Demons, which Marks still calls “The Choke,” to miss out on second place and a spot in the NCHSAA 3-A playoffs, the Knights accomplished their goal of winning a conference title. Since then, Marks said he saw the change in attitude.
“I really can’t say enough about how hard they worked, one through 10,” he said. “After losing last year, they could have just sat with that, but they used it as motivation. Getting in the playoffs was good, but we wanted to win the conference.”
The Knights’ victory sets up a third meeting with fourth-ranked Eastern Wayne, which is responsible for both of No. 8 Northern Nash’s losses in 2012. Both losses were 5-4, and one came after a Northern Nash player kept score incorrectly, resulting in a loss instead of a win.
“I honestly believe if we have the same mentality that we had here (Monday), that we’re going to go down there and beat them,” Brackett said. “It’s lose or go home. We worked hard for this season, and we have to let it pay off.”