Lady Royals, Gray go back-to-back in 10th

JARED MACDONALD
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MOUNT STERLING – Last year they were crowned the new queens of the court, ending Highlands’ run and claiming their first 10th Region title since 1991.

On Monday, the Mason County Lady Royals went to Easy Walker Park in Mount Sterling and claimed a second straight 10th Region girls’ tennis championship behind a singles title from Tessa Gray and a runner-up finish from the doubles team of Mallory Conrad and Haley White.

“It means a lot,” said first-year Mason County coach Matt Jolley. “Clay [Boone] and Mark [Gray] and Brandon [Conrad] – they put in the ground work before I got here. They won it last year and they didn’t lose anybody.

“These girls – they played hard, they worked hard when we could get out there,” added Jolley. “It was a crazy season – ups and downs – so it feels good.”

The Mason County girls’ tennis team claimed their second straight 10th Region title, Monday, in Mount Sterling. (Jared MacDonald, The Ledger Independent)

It’s also Gray’s second straight individual title.

The senior hasn’t dropped a set in the last two tournaments, a run which ended with a 7-5, 6-1 victory over Campbell County’s Natalie Smith in the final.

“It feels pretty good. I know I worked hard to get it, but she’s a really good competitor as you can see by the first set score,” said Gray. “She pushed me.”

Gray was relaxed entering the final match, after knocking off Highlands’ Brooke Hodory, 6-2, 6-1, in the semifinals.

In the first game of the championship match, Gray hit her racquet off her own head on a swing, laughed it off and then went up 1-0.

Mason County’s Tessa Gray returns a ball during a 10th Region tournament championship match with Campbell County’s Natalie Smith, Monday, at Easy Walker Park in Mount Sterling (Jared MacDonald, The Ledger Independent)

“You’ve just got to keep a smile on your face in order to stay positive,” said Gray. “That’s one thing we always told the team in volleyball, is to keep a smile on your face and the rest will come.”

She went up 2-1, then 3-2, before claiming the next two games for a 5-2 advantage in the first set, but Smith rallied back to even things up.

“There was a momentum shift, definitely. She pushed me. She did. She stepped up her game and that’s the best I’ve seen here play all year,” said Gray.

“I knew that I just had to calm down and play my game,” added Gray. “I was letting her dictate a little bit too much. I knew I was better than that. I just had to step it up.”

Gray got her own wave of momentum, taking the next two games to claim the first set, before jumping out to a 5-0 advantage in the second set. Smith made it 5-1, but a big backhand from Gray ended the match.

Meanwhile, the duo of Conrad and White were aiming to defend their 10th Region title from last year, and were also seeking revenge from just a couple weeks ago and last year’s state tournament against Harrison County’s Melody and Sara Dunaway.

The team from Mason County had a 4-3 lead in the first set, but the Dunaways powered back to take it, 6-4. The back-and-forth affair continued in the second set, with the Dunaway sisters going up, 3-2, before Conrad and White made it 4-3 and eventually took the set, 6-4, to force a deciding third set.

Mason County’s doubles team dug themselves into a 5-1 hole in the tiebreaker, but came back to tie it, 6-all. The Dunaways claimed the next two points, but the Lady Royals tied it once again. Each traded a point to make it 9-9, before the Harrison County team took a 10-9 advantage and finished the match with a serve from Melody Dunaway that wasn’t returned.

“Those girls – the Dunaway sisters – they’re fighters, they’re scrappy. You think the point’s over and we had a couple times where the fans thought the points were over, then the ball is just back in play,” said Jolley. “You’ve got to play until there’s two bounces or they hit it out. Give all the credit to those girls, they worked hard and they beat us earlier in the season. They’re good.”

Harrison County finished runner-up in the girls’ tournament. The Dunaways beat Highlands’ Elizabeth Schwalbach and Rachel Hoffman in three sets in the semifinals, while Conrad and White beat Montgomery County’s Eden Covington and Kenley Grimes, 6-4, 6-3.

The St. Patrick duo of Evan and Logan Kalb struggled to find a rhythm early in the boys’ semifinals and fell to Campbell County’s Chris Fox and Mason Nieses, 6-1, 6-2. The Campbell County team is the only one to beat the Kalb brothers this season.

St. Patrick’s Evan Kalb returns a ball during a 10th Region Tournament semifinals match, Monday, at Easy Walker Park in Mount Sterling. (Jared MacDonald, The Ledger Independent)

“Coming in knowing this is who they had to play – this is the only team they lost to in the season – they were coming in looking for revenge and Campbell County was coming in a little on the top end thinking, ‘alright, we got them once,’” said St. Patrick coach Bettsy Kalb. “Campbell just played a great match today and we just struggled. When those two combine it can end up with a lopsided score very quickly.”

While they didn’t advance to the 10th Region final, they had a spot guaranteed in the state tournament after earning a berth in the region semifinals with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Newport Central Catholic’s Ryan Meyer and Scott Kelly in the quarterfinals. They’ll look to clean things up before they head to Lexington.

“Lot of practice between now and then. Cleaning up serving, cleaning up net play,” said Kalb. “Ground strokes were good today, they just threw everything they had at us.”

Campbell County claimed the boys’ title, led by a singles title from Anderson McDowell, who beat Bellevue’s Brad Reed in the final. The doubles team of Fox and Nieses fell to Harrison County’s Luke Bradford and Lucas Sullivan in the doubles final.

All semifinalists advance to the state tournament, which is scheduled to begin on May 17 in Lexington.