By Pete Zamplas
Hendersonville Lady Bearcats are state champions in tennis, finishing unbeaten for the season by unleashing superior net play.
Jessica Eblen, a three-time doubles state champion for HHS last decade, coached the Lady Cats to a perfect 19-0 mark this fall. She led them to their first women’s tennis dual team state crown since 2002, when she helped the program win it all as a freshman sensation. That was a 1A team title, 17 years ago. This time, it was in 2A, and in Burlington Nov. 2.
HHS shut out most foes 9-0, including all five Mountain Six (M6) opponents two times each. HHS has won its conference in each of Eblen’s first six seasons as head coach, starting in 2014. As she said, “we’ve been dominant” in the Western Highands then M6 play.
Coach Eblen credits a skilled and versatile lineup. “My top six players each have all of the weapons,” Coach Eblen said. “We have several girls good enough to be number one for many schools in western North Carolina. They play year-round” in clubs and youth tournaments.
Tennis smarts is pivotal to HHS success, Eblen said. “They’re bright. They’re problem solvers. They like that tennis is a puzzle. They find out the opponent’s weakness, and they exploit it.”
In the state finals, HHS was critically better at the net and swept all three doubles against the N.C. School of Science and Math’s Lady Unicorns (14-1). That public boarding school squad from Durham won four of six singles matches, and needed to win merely one doubles match to clinch.
But the Lady Cats rallied to prevail overall, by 5-4. That was HHS’ sole close match score all year.
Doubles players were confident from scouting their foes when playing them earlier in singles, Eblen said. “If a player made an approach shot, but didn’t go to the net” it indicated she is not confident enough about volleying or handling passing shots or quick return smashes.
“Most high school girl players feel the net is like an electric fence,” Eblen said with a chuckle. “I was confident if it came to doubles, we’d be in really good shape. I didn’t doubt our chances for a second. We were much more comfortable in the doubles setting, than they were.”
On the flip side “They were an incredibly strong team in singles. They consistently hit the ball back. We were the two best (2A) teams in the state.”
Eblen is proud HHS is the first “true public school from the mountains” in a decade to win a tennis state title, in an era dominated by the Unicorns and other “charter schools that can recruit” widely beyond a school district.
In the M6, 10-0 HHS finished two matches ahead of scrappy Pisgah’s 8-2 mark. East Henderson and Smoky Mountain tied for third, at 5-5.
HHS sensed its potential in the third match of the season, versus Asheville School. The Lady Blues edged HHS a season earlier. “Asheville School usually sweeps us under the rug,” Eblen said. “We beat them 6-3. That foreshadowed what we’re capable of.”
In state dual team tourneys, HHS often won a round or two but then fell to the eventual state champ — such as to Maiden last year. This time, HHS went the distance. The Lady Cats shut out Draughn then dealt Salisbury (15-1) its sole defeat — in a semifinal at Salisbury Oct. 31.
Before that, in the state individual tourney, Lady Bearcat top seed McCollough Perry was the state runner-up in singles — just as she was as a freshman two years ago. She was a state semifinalist in ’18. Perry and Lindsay Bull were state runners-up in doubles this fall.
Including those two stars, two-thirds of the 15-player roster is eligible to return in ’20. Merely one senior was in the HHS starting lineup.
Many play club tennis and tourneys nearly year-round. Second seed Lindsay Bull’s parents Chris Bull and Cindy Wurtenberg Durkin run Hendersonville Racquet Club. Chris was mayor of Marathon, Fla. and coached tennis and soccer there.
Returning HHS players are apt to get even better, and “we have more good players coming in next year,” Coach Eblen noted. On paper, HHS has an excellent chance to repeat as team state champion.
Hendersonville’s singles players in order of seeding are Perry, Bull, Anna Trace, Olivia Pursley, Celia Donaldson — the sole senior starter and HHS’ Student Body president — and Anne Jones. Jones’ younger sister Catherine usually ranked seventh, and next in line.
Doubles pairings were Perry-Bull first, Trace-Pursley, then Anne Jones with third-year starter Donaldson. The state finals came down to sophomore Trace — the finals MVP — and freshman Pursley in doubles, as the last match to finish.
Trace-Pursley defeated Nithya Sampath and Arianna Dwomoh, with a brisk championship point. HHS unleashed a serve, then two crisp net volleys — with the Unicorns returning the second volley long.
Clara Hofmann-Gonzalez, a sophomore, is a German exchange student on HHS. Other Lady Cats are seniors Donaldson, India Davis-Boggs, Eleanor Knox, sportsmanship award winner Holly Obermiller, and Kaela Van’t Hoff; juniors Perry and Jordana Stiefel; sophomores Bull, Trace, Anne Jones, Riley Hoffmann and Sydney Housinger; and freshmen Pursley and Catherine Jones.
In number one doubles, Perry-Bull pulled away from a close, “intense” match, Anne Jones noted. She said all three HHS doubles pairs “played aggressively at the net,” to hit many winners.
She got to watch the other two doubles matches, while “hanging off the rails” in the stands. That is since she and Donaldson cruised 8-4, to finish earlier. The sides often exchanged points. Down 3-4, Jones said, “we started rolling” at the net.
Their foes stayed back, defensively lobbing high and deep moonshots to prolong points. The Unicorns hoped for unforced HHS errors. It seems for those math kids, that tactic “didn’t add up” and instead backfired.
“We countered that, by ‘poaching’” lower shots within reach, to “put it away’” for winners, Anne Jones explained. “We were patient, to play out the point and let them get lazy” and mishit before HHS did so.
A key was not over-hitting, she said. “We focused on what we could control. We don’t have to intimidate all the time” by smashing the ball.
This reflects Coach Eblen’s teachings. “You can be consistent, yet also aggressive,” Eblen told The Tribune. “Be smart in your shot selection,” and pounce on any opening.
“Simplify the game. Stay in the moment,” Eblen urges. “Avoid thinking ahead (to a game-winning point) or about the past (mishits). There are certain things (opposing winning shots) you can’t control out on the court. But you can control your attitude and effort. Stay in control with your footwork, and body language.”
Confidence rises along with how consistently well one hits the ball, she said. And it shows. Eblen noted it helps to avoid slouching and looking unconfident, which can empower a foe.
Anne Jones said she tries to stay more “even keel” in doubles than when playing singles, but instead tries to “pump up my partner” with encouraging words. “You can get nervous playing a state playoff,” she said. “But we’ve played tournament tennis. Her sister Catherine said that in doubles, “Our bond as a team helps us communicate” during and between points.
The state title seems to have boosted spirits of all HHS students, Van’t Hoff said.
HHS principal Bobby Wilkins honored the champs Nov. 6, as part of a regular school-wide student assembly held every nine weeks. It also previewed students’ original play Matter and Change.
Tennis Lady Cats “were focused as any group I’ve ever seen” at the school, Wilkins said. “They bore down, and did the best they could. They were fun to watch.”
Wilkins knows how concentration grooms athletic, academic or artistic excellence that HHS students demonstrate. He starred in basketball for HHS in the mid-Seventies, and coached Bearcats boys to the 1992 1A state basketball title.
Wilkins said the tennis players’ focus and consistency is molded by Coach Eblen. “She’s very focused. She knows what to do, because she’s been there (state tourneys). She’s speaking from experience.”
Indeed, Eblen, now 31, as a player helped bring state trophies home for HHS tennis in 1A doubles in 2003, ’04 and ’05. As a freshman, she was runner-up in doubles and helped HHS win the 2002 dual team state title. The smooth-stroking, slender 5-foot-6 Eblen out-hit larger foes. Her doubles partners were Mary Elizabeth Rouse (now Rankin), then Jeanne-Marie LaBorde (now Stevens) for her last two seasons.
Both doubles partners “loved being on the baseline,” Eblen recalled. “I loved coming to the net. We balanced each other.”
She said as a player, “I didn’t show a ton of emotion. I was calm on the court. I was athletic, and pretty aggressive” as she let her play do the talking.
Coach Eblen is “very energetic. She encourages us, to strive for the best,” Catherine Jones said. Anne Jones said, “Coach adapts our talent and stroke techniques, and supports us. She knows how to win (titles) in doubles.”
On the technical side, “she teaches us,” Anne Jones said. “She hits when we do warmups — forehands and backhands. She’s great at the net. Training with her helps in handling unpredictable shots.”
Meanwhile, West Henderson went 16-4 under coach Allen Combs, and at 13-3 was third in the WMAC that Roberson won. West dropped its playoff opener, to eventual 3A state champ Charlotte Catholic (21-0).
West highlights include sweeping WMAC second place Asheville 6-3 then 5-4 at Asheville. The top four Lady Falcons won in singles at AHS — Ciara Still, Emile Mosso, Audrey Hood and Laurel Welch. In doubles, Still-Hood and Annie Rudolph-Camryn Bolick won.