Two hours and some change had gone by in Thursday afternoon’s girls’ tennis contest — and two matches still hadn’t finished yet.
At this point, the intra-region battle between Northwestern and Nation Ford had already been decided: Nation Ford had won Court Three, Court Four and Court Five in singles and Court Two in doubles. Some players had been off their own courts for over an hour.
And yet, with the once-bright-blue sky now an amber glow, Northwestern’s Ashlyn Glover and Emma Pope continue to play against Nation Ford’s Natalie Sawyer and Alex Cardona.
“Let’s go Alex; you know what to do!” someone yells from the crowd. It’s Alex’s twin sister, Vanessa, who’d won her singles match for Nation Ford earlier in the afternoon.
The Cardona sisters and Sawyer are the three returning players — not returning seniors, not returning upperclassmen, but returning players — for Nation Ford, a team that won the region last season. The team graduated seven seniors and lost five others this year to Catawba Ridge High School, the area’s newest school.
“Good job Ashlyn!” another voice from the crowd cheers. That’s Northwestern head coach Tim Hartis, who is now coaching a team that’s on the fringe of making the state playoffs.
By the end of Thursday, Nation Ford would earn a 4-2 team win after Northwestern took the last two courts — and, more importantly, both teams would have an idea of their postseason hopes.
Fort Mill currently tops the 5A-3 region; Nation Ford is second; Northwestern is third. And the top three teams make the state playoffs.
Nation Ford head coach Lindsay Gregory said that this team, despite having won region last year, has exceeded her expectations thus far this season.
“I knew that there were three girls coming back, and I didn’t have a clue,” Gregory told The Herald after Thursday’s match. She then laughed: “I thought I might have to go and pull some girls from class.”
Junior Alex Cardona said that helping lead this newly-inexperienced team has been a fun challenge.
“It’s really nice to help the other girls along because they’re all sweet,” Cardona said. “It’s been a long journey, but it’s been fun.”
Her sister, Vanessa, said that the team is improving for this year as well as next year.
“We lost against Fort Mill, but that’s OK because it’s expected for us to lose a few games,” Vanessa Cardona said. “But we’ve been doing really well. And the goal for us, since there’s only going to be three seniors, is to do even better next year.”
On the other side, Northwestern has had its own set of challenges to work through this season. Coach Hartis, though, said that the team is set on improving every day.
“One of the goals is to not get too tied up in wins and losses and statistics and rankings,” Hartis said. “You always want to win, and you always want to try to reach for the top, and you always want to improve in your ranking, but I always tell my players: ‘The key is to just improve your daily game…’
“One goal is to make it to the playoffs, but if we keep improving, then the other things kind of take care of themselves.”
A consistent bright spot for Northwestern this season has been Glover — the Trojan senior who hasn’t lost a region match all season.
Glover agreed with her coach that the goal is to earn a state playoff berth.
“We work hard every day,” Glover said, “and I just want to try to get to somewhere and play a really good team and have a good experience my senior year.”
Next week, Northwestern faces Clover and Rock Hill. Nation Ford also plays twice, matching up with Indian Land before hosting Fort Mill — the team that likely poses the largest hindrance to the Falcons’ chances at repeating as region champions.
“I would definitely love to win the region again,” Gregory said. “It’s within reach.
“We just have to see how next week goes.”
Court 1: Ashlyn Glover (NW) defeated Natalie Sawyer (NF): 6-2, 7-6 (7-4)
Court 2: Emma Pope (NW) defeated Alex Cardona (NF): 7-5, 7-6 (7-5)
Court 3: Vanessa Cardona (NF) defeated Ivanah Johnson (NW): 6-0, 6-1
Court 4: Tanvi Sikka (NF) defeated Emma Harper (NW): 6-0, 6-2
Court 5: Neha Arunprakash (NF) defeated Rylea Stow (NW): 6-0, 6-0
Court 2: Lauren Padgett and Keeley Wong (NF) defeated Laney Johnson and Lauren Husted (NW): 6-2, 7-6 (7-4)