The net in the middle of a tennis court is a three-foot barrier between opponents. But for some players like Rocky Mount High’s Caroline Land, that barrier can represent so much more.
Land spent much of the season sending shots and returning balls over the net, and did so from where she was most comfortable — far away from the net. Rarely did Land play up close. She liked having more time to react to shots.
“At the beginning of the season I wasn’t confident at the net,” the sophomore said. “I didn’t have experience there so I sort of stayed away. I just played how I was used to playing.”
All of that changed a few weeks ago when Gryphons first-year coach Wayne Holloman’s teaching finally hit home. Holloman, a former tennis player himself, knew that if his players could add a net presence to their respective games, the Gryphons would turn into a formidable team.
The Gryphons find themselves still playing tennis as one of eight teams remaining in the state playoffs. RMH continues its strong season today as it plays New Hanover in Wilmington in the third round of the NCHSAA Class 3-A dual team playoffs.
“For us to be here is a testament to the hard work the girls put in all season,” Holloman said. “We graduated our top two players from last year’s team, and the girls slotted up and stepped right in and performed great.”
The Gryphons, who finished second in the Big East Conference behind Wilson Fike, cruised in the first round of the postseason with a 6-3 win over Clayton. But the team needed a heroic effort from Land and No. 3 doubles partner Mary Katherine Broderick in the second round in order to get past Greenville Conley.
Trailing 4-2 after being outplayed in the singles matches, the Gryphons needed to sweep all three doubles matches to extend their season. It was an unfamiliar situation for the Gryphons, who rarely counted on doubles because of a talented singles lineup.
But here they were, needing some magic.
The top two doubles pairing won easily, 10-2, and 10-1, respectively. That left Land and Broderick needing to pull out a win to move on. And what Holloman saw made him smile. There was Land standing near the net, punishing her opponent volley after volley.
“Caroline started to stay after practice to work on her play at the net,” Holloman said. “We worked on stance, form, approach, everything. In that match, the angles she was hitting were incredible. She looked comfortable like she had been dominating at the net all season.”
Land and Broderick picked up a 10-6 win to seal the victory and send the Gryphons into the third round. No tennis RMH tennis team has advanced past the third round in duals, and this young team with just one senior is aiming to do just that.
And the credit goes to a revamped style of play, and a talented young core that never once looked overmatched all season.
Caroline Broderick, a sophomore who played at No. 3 and 4 singles last year, is the Gryphons’ top player. She only lost two matches this season while guiding the Gryphons to a 10-2 season. Junior Katie Moss, at No. 2 singles, finished the season 13-1. Sophomore Carson Browder lost only three matches all season, while Mary Katherine Broderick went 13-0 at No. 5 singles, with Land going 12-1 in singles.
Holloman said that many teams can count on several players to secure wins in a given match. But what has made his team so successful this season, Holloman said, is that the players at the low singles and doubles positions have worked on employing a skillset that overmatches teams.
Players like Land working toward being a force at the net can make the difference between a loss, and a trip to the third round of the playoffs. Playing near the net opens up a wide range of shots, and forces the opponent to be aware of that player looming just across the net.
“I’ve learned that if you can do well at the net it’s huge,” Land said. “For me, I know it’s intimidating for the other team because they know you’re right up on them. They’re going to try to avoid hitting it to you because they might be scared that you might crush the ball.
“If you are good at the net, it is advantageous. It took some work to be comfortable playing there, but it’s worth it.”