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Lady Panthers get early upper hand in EPC girls tennis race

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Deceptive might be the best way to describe the final score that gave the North Johnston girls tennis team an 8-1 win on Tuesday over 2-A Eastern Plains Conference rival Beddingfield.  

While most one-sided matches wrap up pretty quickly, the nearly three-hour affair between the Panthers and Beddingfield hosts wasn’t decided so simply, even as the visiting team held a steady lead the entire match. 

“The score was not indicative of how close it was,” Beddingfield head coach Jeremy Howard said. “And when we play them in a couple weeks, we’ll practice and be a little better.”

Both North Johnston and Beddingfield players say the two schools are in the middle of a longstanding rivalry on the tennis courts. That rivalry was renewed in the first EPC match for each team in what Howard said is an annual “measuring stick” for who will likely become the favorite to take home the conference crown later in the season.

Last season, Beddingfield won the conference, getting the better of North Johnston in two 5-4 decisions. The season before that, North Johnston swept the Bruins on the way to the top of the conference. Every season, it’s one of the matches both teams look forward to, usually with one ready to exact revenge on the other.

This time, North Johnston found the advantage, which brought forth a good feeling for the team.

“I’m sure they’ll be the toughest team we play in our conference,” North Johnston No. 1 singles player Arial Pearce said. “So it feels good to beat the best team.”

It took a battle before that was decided. Though the final score did not reflect it, almost nothing was won easily by the Lady Panthers. 

Two singles matches went deep into a third-set tiebreaker, while a third one eventually claimed by NJ’s Ashley Bunn was decided after a back-and-forth stalemate in an extended second set.  Yet despite nearly half of the singles points being up for grabs, North Johnston won all of them and jumped out to a healthy lead.

Dixon was the first to finish her match, winning over Milan in three sets. Samantha Davis won by straight sets next, followed by Pearce in two sets to take a 3-0 lead.

Bunn emerged victorious out of a tight second set followed closely by Batten in three sets over Gardner and Mayelly Oliveros over Liz Ameca in two sets.

“It felt a lot closer in the very beginning, especially when I started looking over and I saw we won the first set 6-0 and then the second set they were winning,” North Johnston head coach David Anderson said.

Howard noted afterward that many of those early matches could have gone a different way had the battles late in matches been won by his players.

In the second half of play, all three doubles matches were separated by no more than three points by the final decision. The Bruins fought admirably, but North Johnston pulled out all but one of those close matches, the lone exception being a doubles point won by Annie Greene and Cynthia Milan. By then, the Lady Panthers were already ahead 7-0.

Greene and Milan became the lone bright spot, winning without being regular doubles partners. After Greene’s usual partner, Anna Gardner, was unable to compete in the doubles lineup, the two had to adjust, eventually taking down North Johnston’s Alexia Dixon and Sarah Batten.

“Once we got in the groove of it, we hit some really hard cross-court shots and had a bunch of good net play and I think that’s what drove us ahead,” Greene explained.

After a loss, Beddingfield is already looking forward to a rematch set to be played Sept. 19 in Kenly. The team hopes, with history on its side, that they can find themselves in another battle and use their experience to turn the tides.

“I’m just looking forward to knowing their strategy,” Greene said. “I know where they’re going to hit it, and hopefully I’ll get it.”

The difference in the end, Howard explained, might just be a little more maturity for the Lady Panthers, something driving his Beddingfield squad ahead.

“They had a little bit more experience all the way around us today,” Howard said. “We’ll see if we can close the gap next time.”

NORTH JOHNSTON 8, BEDDINGFIELD 1

Arial Pearce (NJ) def. Christmas Haynesworth 6-2, 6-1; Samantha Davis (NJ) def. Annie Greene 6-2, 6-2; Alexia Dixon (NJ) def. Cynthia Milan 6-0, 4-6, 10-2; Mayelly Oliveros (NJ) def. Liz Ameca 6-1, 6-3; Sarah Batten (NJ) def. Anna Gardner 6-4, 4-6, 10-5; Ashley Bunn (NJ) def. Jasmin Arias 6-0, 7-5. 

Pearce-Davis (NJ) def. Haynesworth-Ameca 8-5; Greene-Milan (B) def. Dixon-Batten 9-7; Oliveros-Bunn (NJ) def. Karina Alvarez-Jasmin Arias 8-5. 

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