11/02/05 — Murphy-Harrell rally Rams past talented Crusaders

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Murphy-Harrell rally Rams past talented Crusaders

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on November 2, 2005 2:02 PM

SNOW HILL -- Greene Central just refuses to surrender its reign as the eastern dual-team tennis queen.

Cardinal Gibbons attempted to dethrone the Rams, the seven-time defending champions, but couldn't quite rule the doubles court on key points Tuesday evening. The tandem of Christi Murphy-Ashley Harrell muddled through a mid-match slump and helped deny the Crusaders 5-4 in their N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 2-A eastern semifinal.

Greene Central (22-1) opposes long-time rival Edenton Holmes (19-1) for its eighth consecutive regional championship Thursday afternoon in Snow Hill. The winner advances to the state finals slated for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Burlington Tennis Center.

Veteran Rams coach Donald Clark earned a "sneak preview" of the Crusaders in last week's Mideast Regional individual tournament. Gibbons appeared strong in singles and eventually produced the regional champion -- sophomore Nancy Reilly.

Clark expected a tough challenge.

He was right.

Third-set tiebreakers determined the outcome in four singles matches with each team winning two. The teams split in doubles, which left Murphy-Harrell -- the Mideast Regional runner-up -- on the court against Gibbons' Grace Whiteley-Scottie Whiteley.

Murphy and Harrell had endured straight-set losses to the siblings in singles play. They dismissed those disappointing defeats and collected a thrilling come-from-behind victory that furthered whitened Clark's hair.

Murphy-Harrell built leads of 7-2 and 9-6, only to see Whiteley-Whiteley answer each time. The Gibbons duo broke Murphy-Harrell's serve and tied the match at 9-9.

Whiteley-Whiteley bolted ahead 40-0 in the next game, but the Rams rallied for a service break and a 10-9 match advantage. The Crusaders served and fell behind 15-40 when Murphy pushed a winner down the line.

Murphy-Harrell (23-3) eventually won and helped Greene Central pick up playoff win No. 31 in 38 outings since its first-ever appearance in the state finals in 1998. Gibbons, realigned into the Mid-State Conference this season after dominating in the independent schools ranks, concluded the year 17-2.

"Ashley and Christi just refused to give up," said Clark. "Once again, Ashley did a marvelous job for us on the backline, continually pushing balls back until we could win the point. I just can't say enough about how well these two girls have played the last two weeks."

Clark couldn't stop gushing about the Rams' most-guttiest effort of the season. He couldn't single out one player's performance.

"We had so many heroes today," said Clark.

The Crusaders matched the Rams ground stroke for ground stroke in singles play. The teams battled to a 1-1 tie on Grace Whiteley's win against Murphy and Meredith Rouse's three-set comeback against Reilly, who suffered just her second loss in 26 matches.

Rouse (20-4) trailed 5-2 in the second set and battled to a 5-5 tie. Reilly broke Rouse's serve in the next game and eventually evened the match with a 7-5 win.

Rouse seized leads of 3-0 and 5-3 in the 12-point tiebreaker, but watched Reilly tie it each time. However, Reilly committed back-to-back unforced errors by pushing balls just wide and Rouse escaped 6-1, 4-6, 7-5.

"Meredith did a fantastic job," said Clark.

Michelle Jernigan, one of three first-year starters in the lineup, rallied from a 6-5 deficit to beat Fiona Steer 7-6 (4) in the opening set. Steer rebounded 6-3, but Jernigan grabbed the tiebreaker 8-6.

Brittany Horton, another first-year starter and lone junior, stumbled in the first set 6-4 against Gibbons senior Amanda Bitler. Horton dominated the second set 6-1 and survived the third-set tiebreaker 7-5.

"Michelle just ran and ran and ran to get balls back all day long," said Clark. "Brittany came back and played almost flawless tennis after she lost the first set. She hit over 50 balls to win several points."

Gibbons picked up a third-set tiebreaker at No. 6 singles to force the 3-3 tie heading into doubles. Rouse-Horton, the Mideast Regional champions, easily defeated Reilly-Casey Perriccio 10-5.

Clark said Rouse's serve and ability to control the backline proved crucial since Reilly had moved Rouse from corner to corner during their singles match. Horton played strong at the net, putting away numerous volleys on key points.

"This was the best high school tennis match I have ever seen," said Clark. "I am so proud of all of my girls. I asked them before the match to leave their guts out on the court today, and that is exactly what they did."

The queen's reign continues.