Porter-Gaud’s boys tennis team is back in the saddle again after one of the Cyclones’ longest state title dry spells in two decades.
Yes, two whole seasons. For the 13th time in 18 seasons, the Cyclones (14-2) hoisted the state tennis title Friday afternoon in Columbia after outmaneuvering upstart Hilton Head Christian (8-4) in doubles to claim a 5-4 victory in the SCISA Class AAA state final.
Juniors Thomas Spratt and Conner Grady, and sophomore Seth Pinosky all went unbeaten for the day, each notching wins in singles and doubles to carry Tom Higgins to his sixth state championship in 10 years as the Cyclones’ head coach.
Although Porter-Gaud last won a state title in 2009, this was the fourth straight final for the Cyclones. Only one other time since 1995 had the Cyclones gone back-to-back seasons without winning a state championship.
Spratt used his 6-6 height to his advantage with net approaches in the upset of the day to defeat the Eagles’ Bucknell-bound Nick Bybel, 6-1, 2-6, 10-7, at No. 1 singles in the match that allowed Porter-Gaud to split the six singles matches. Pinosky and Grady won at Nos. 4 and 6 singles in straight sets.
The Drake brothers, Hampton and Charlie, gave third-seeded Hilton Head Christian hope with wins at Nos. 2 and 3 singles over the Cyclones’ Junior Duarte and Hunter Mitchell, and unbeaten Ben Likins got the other singles win for the Eagles at No. 5 over PG junior Payne Hoy.
Likins had played No. 1 for the Eagles in 2011 before the arrival of Bybel and the Drakes from Hilton Head Island’s training academies.
Higgins split his usual doubles teams, putting Spratt with Hoy at No. 2 doubles, and matching Pinosky and Grady at No. 3 for straight-set wins that dashed Hilton Head’s hopes early with a pair of one-sided second sets after 7-5 opening sets.
“Thomas was the difference today,” insisted Higgins, who had seen Spratt drop both regular-season matches against Bybel. “The difference was that Thomas was coming in and taking the short balls and doing something with them. He wasn’t going for outright winners, but hitting them to the corners, then sealing off the net and taking advantage of his height to hit winning volleys.
Spratt was coming off a win over Furman-bound Ben Horst of Hammond School in the state semifinals.
“I think Thomas has shown in consecutive wins over Division I players that he’s a Division I player, too,” Higgins said. “The difference the last couple of matches was that Thomas was taking advantage of his height to win points.”
As for splitting Spratt and Mitchell at No. 1 doubles and the Duarte/Pinosky duo at No. 2, Higgins said, “We had been practicing that. It was a gamble since we had won two of the three doubles down there (in a 5-4 PG win at Hilton Head Christian).”
But the former Eastern Kentucky head coach was happy that this time the decisive doubles match didn’t go to a third-set match tiebreaker against Hilton Head Christian. And it was even sweeter winning a state title as the fourth seed.
PORTER-GAUD 5, HILTON HEAD CHRISTIAN 4
SINGLES: Thomas Spratt (PG) def. Nick Bybel, 6-1, 2-6, 10-7; Hampton Drake (HHC) def. Junior Duarte, 6-3, 6-4; Charlie Drake (HHC) def. Hunter Mitchell, 6-4, 6-1; Seth Pinosky (PG) def. Sam Trimble, 6-1, 6-0; Ben Likins (HHC) def. Payne Hoy, 6-1, 6-1; Conner Grady (PG) def. Alex Likins, 6-4, 6-3.
DOUBLES: Bybel/H. Drake (HHC) def. Mitchell/Duarte, 6-1, 6-1; Spratt/Hoy (PG) def. C. Drake/Trimble, 7-5, 6-2; Pinosky/Grady (PG) def. B. Likens/Joe Zeigler, 7-5, 6-0.