McKinley Battle thought she had an idea of how varsity sports would go before she entered high school this year. The Rocky Mount High freshman expected tough coaches, tough training and stiff competition.
She got all that, but it wasn’t as scary as she thought.
I thought it would be a lot harder, Battle said. I thought I would run all the time and do a lot of exercises. But we have a lot of fun in practice and we are still working on things and improving. I just thought it would be different.
Battle is the top singles player from a Gryphons team that won the Big East Conference with four freshmen in the starting lineup. It was the program’s first conference title since 2019. She also qualified in singles for the 3-A Regionals held at the Burlington Tennis Center on Friday, after finishing second in the conference tournament.
The Gryphons will also send two doubles teams to the regional teams. Maddie Girouard and Hannah Richardson won the conference tournament and qualified, while Stella Harris and Ana Weeks also qualified in second place.
The undefeated Gryphons earned the top spot in the two-team play-offs and advanced to the second round on Wednesday after taking a 5-1 home win over visiting number 16 South Brunswick.
The top seeded Gryphons will play again on Tuesday.
It’s really cool to be a part of such a good team as a freshman, said Battle. And most of our team are freshmen, so we have a good chance of developing together over the years until we are seniors.
The Gryphons moved up behind the play of the young players who took care of business early on. The teams didn’t have to double up, as RMH (12-0) won the game by taking five of the nine possible points.
Battle took a straight-set, 6-0, 6-0, victory over No. 1 singles, and Molly Morningstar won 6-1, 6-0, at No. 2 singles. Also winning singles for the Gryphons were Weeks (6-1, 6-0), Girouard (6-0, 6-0) and Richardson (6-0, 6-0).
Elizabeth Harris lost at number 3 singles in a tough 3-hour match that required a tiebreak in the third set to decide. Harris lost, 7-6 (7-3), 4-6, 10-8.
For the Gryphons, this season looks set to be the start of a potentially deep postseason run, as well as a dominant display in the Big East over the next three seasons. Just Harris and Weeks are seniors, just like the other four in their first seasons.
It’s pretty cool to be able to talk to the other freshmen and I don’t know what’s going on and figure it all out together, Battle said.
As a freshman playing in the top singles spot, Battle has learned the demands of the position on the fly. Her only regular season loss came against Northern Nashs Chloe Harrington, who is a two-time state qualifier and three-time Big East champion.
Harrington and Battle grew up playing tennis, but never faced each other until this season, when Harrington won 6-3, 6-2 on September 14. They faced each other again in the conference tournament, where Harrington again won in straight sets, this time by a 6-2, 6-3 decision.
But the games against Harrington and the fierce competition throughout the season have made Battle accustomed to playing every game with the best players of his opponents.
The first time we played, I don’t know why, but it put a lot of pressure on me, said Battle. But when I saw her again in the conference tournament there wasn’t that much pressure because she’d already beat me once, so I had nothing to lose. I kind of took that mentality with me.
Battle said her serve is the strength of her game. And when she finds that trick, the rest of her game falls into place.
Once my serve gets pretty consistent, she said, my whole game changes.
She used that powerful serve and strong all-round game to set a 10-2 singles record this season. Next up is the individual region, before the Gryphons return to the team game on Tuesday.
I’m proud of my team for winning the conference and I’m proud of my teammates for winning the doubles tournament, Battle said. And while I haven’t played in it yet, I was very happy to make regionals. I was actually surprised that I made it as a freshman. I did not expect that.
But I think the goal of our whole team is to win the conference in the next three years because we are young and we can still improve as we get older. And would figure this all out together.
Chatham Central 6 Tarboro 0
the no. 16 seeded Vikings (0-10) lost in straight sets in the opening round of the Class 1-A dual team playoffs.
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