By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on November 6, 2005 2:41 AM
BURLINGTON -- Victory is like fine wine. It's years in the making and moments in the tasting.
Eight-time eastern champion Greene Central finally tasted that long-awaited and sweet nectar of triumph Saturday afternoon in the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 2-A dual-team state finals. Denied in their previous seven trips, the Rams finally claimed the crown they so desperately desired.
Greene Central's No. 2 doubles of Christi Murphy-Ashley Harrell dominated Christina Dunkin-Casey Collins and propelled the Rams past Salisbury 5-2 on the Burlington Tennis Center courts.
"This is so amazing and we waited so long for this," said Murphy, who choked back tears. "We finally did it."
Clark opted not to discuss the state finals during the preseason. In fact, most people didn't expect the Rams to successfully defend their eastern regional title. Veteran coach Donald Clark admitted winning the Eastern Plains Conference would be difficult with three first-year starters.
But he knew the players wouldn't be satisfied.
A collection of underachievers who were not as talented as past Greene Central teams, these players possessed two significant qualities -- heart and character -- that fueled their inner soul. Anything less than another state-title run with five seniors would be unacceptable.
Two stern tests within a three-day period validated the Rams' determination. Murphy-Harrell seized the match-clinching victory against Cardinal Gibbons on Tuesday. The Rams swept the doubles after splitting six matches against nemesis Edenton Holmes on Thursday.
"We knew we were a strong team and this week, we played some really great teams," said senior Meredith Rouse. "I just felt like we were more prepared. As a team today, we just played the perfect match.
"Everybody was hustling, never gave up and busted (their butts). We wanted it just as bad as all the (Greene Central) players before for eight years."
Michelle Jernigan, a first-year starter, epitomized Rouse's observation. The senior toiled through a three-hour, three-tiebreaker match against Meredith Weisler. Weisler took the opening set 7-6 (9), while Jernigan responded with a come-from-behind 7-6 (5) win.
Jernigan opened the decisive third-set tiebreaker with an ace. The players traded numerous unforced errors before Jernigan gained two match points at 6-4.
Weisler benefited from two unforced errors, but Jernigan served an ace for match point at 7-6. Aggressive play by both players resulted in more unforced errors and a 9-9 tie.
Jernigan netted the next point in thrilling fashion. Weisler moved Jernigan from corner to corner, which set up a potential passing shot to the corner. Jernigan stretched and returned a sharp backhand that caught Weisler flat-footed.
Weisler's return sailed wide and Jernigan, winded from running, pumped her fist by her side. Weisler committed another unforced error to give Jernigan the match, but more importantly, boost Greene Central's overall advantage to 4-2.
"Michelle was constantly down and even when she was ahead, it wasn't by much," said Clark. "She just gave us everything she could today."
Rouse and fellow senior Ashley Harrell contributed to the two-match lead. Rouse dumped Susie Wear 6-3, 6-2 and Harrell pounded out a 6-1, 6-1 victory over Chris Leonard. Brittany Horton, a first-year starter, turned back Casey Collins 6-4, 6-1.
Salisbury, the Central Carolina champion, received wins from second-seeded Dunkin and sixth-seeded Ellen Emerson. Dunkin and Murphy split singles and then played a controversial third-set tiebreaker. Dunkin had struggled all afternoon with Murphy's chip volleys that produced a lot of backspin.
Tied at 5-5 in the tiebreaker, Murphy hit a drop volley that bounced in front of Dunkin. The ball bounced again before Dunkin stretched to pop it over the net. Murphy thought she had match point at 6-5, but the court official ruled in favor of Dunkin.
Murphy pleaded her case. The official asked Dunkin if the ball bounced twice and Dunkin replied "no." Dunkin won the match 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-5.
Clark offered no protest since it was a judgment call.
"That was a pivotal moment there," said Salisbury coach Chris Myers. "It looked for a while that this thing was going to be over in singles and that Greene Central was going to win it pretty early. We just battled back at number two, something Christina has done all year.
"She made it a lot closer and it came down to some great points at that number four spot between Meredith and Jernigan."
As twilight faded into dusk, the confident Rams swaggered back onto the courts. Once warm-ups concluded, Rouse-Horton and Murphy-Harrell struck quickly in their respective matches.
Each duo hit sharp volleys, served well and utilized the angles in building three-game leads. Murphy-Harrell (25-3) turned a scant 3-2 lead into an 8-3 cushion.
"We just tried to keep each other pumped up and going," said Murphy. "I've been playing doubles with Ashley for three years and I wouldn't want to play with any other person."
Dunkin-Collins climbed within 9-4 before Harrell stepped to the service line. The teams traded winners until Murphy-Harrell earned two state-championship points at 40-15.
Harrell served and the Salisbury duo returned it toward Murphy. Murphy sent a forehand return to middle court and Dunkin framed her return. When the ball finally bounced on the Hornets' side of the net, Murphy and Harrell dropped their racquets, hugged and the celebration began.
The Rams had cast aside the moniker of "first-place loser."
"This team has a heart and desire like no other team I've ever coached," said Clark, whose team finished 25-1. "This group just finds a way to get the job done and there really aren't any superstars on this team, but there are six heroes."
Now they're state champions.
2005 N.C. High School
Athletic Association Class 2-A
(at Burlington Tennis Center)
Greene Central 5
Singles -- No. 1 Meredith Rouse (GC) d. Susie Wear 6-3, 6-2; No. 2 Christina Dunkin (S) d. Christi Murphy 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-5; No. 3 Ashley Harrell (GC) d. Chris Leonard 6-1, 6-1; No. 4 Michelle Jernigan (GC) d. Meredith Weisler 6-7 (9), 7-6 (5), 11-9; No. 5 Brittany Horton (GC) d. Casey Collins 6-4, 6-1; No. 6 Ellen Emerson (S) d. Elizabeth Cooper 6-2, 6-2.
Doubles -- No. 2 Murphy-Harrell (GC) d. Dunkin-Collins 10-4.
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