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Prep tennis: Hurricane is in position to challenge history

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Not counting the three powerhouses -- Parkersburg, Huntington and George Washington -- the list of Class AAA girls tennis programs with a team state title is a short one.

Charleston High is the only other two-time champ with titles in 1971 and '73. Beckley (1977), Cabell Midland (2000) and South Charleston (2003) each won once.

That's it.

Hurricane will try to join the exclusive club when the state tournament begins today. The Redskins are the only Class AAA program that qualified all seven positions for the event, which runs Thursday through Saturday at the Schoenbaum Courts in Kanawha City.

Hurricane's girls program had never sent more than two positions to states.

"Some of the draws came out pretty well," said Glenna Ragle, who is in her 15th season coaching tennis at Hurricane. "I told the girls that it's pretty much set up for them. We can earn more points than anybody because we already have more people there."

In last week's Class AAA Region 4 tournament, two-time defending state champion Huntington won regional titles at five of seven positions. Hurricane, however, kept two of the Highlanders' positions -- No. 4 singles and No. 3 doubles -- out of the state field.

Eight Class AAA girls teams have at least five seeds represented at states. George Washington, Parkersburg, Ripley, Washington and University qualified six spots. Martinsburg, like Huntington, has five.

Those schools might boast more individual regional titles, but none have the earning power Hurricane takes into today's matches.

The Redskins' evolution into a force has been a gradual, but not completely surprising, process.

"Basically when we first started the season we didn't know each other as a team very well; we didn't know our doubles partners," said Ashley White, a senior who won regional titles at No. 4 singles and No. 3 doubles.

"We gained confidence because we won every match but Huntington."

Hurricane, a team Ragle called her deepest ever, finished 14-2 with both losses coming against Huntington.

But matches against tennis superpowers had a different feel, even in defeat. The 8-0 and 8-1 losses turned into nailbiters that could go either way.

White lost twice to Huntington in the regular season, but turned the tables in regionals with an 8-4 win over top-seeded Braddick Price in the No. 4 singles final.

Hurricane sophomore and No. 1 singles player Kayla McKnight went 10-6 with three losses to Huntington, two to Cabell Midland and one to Charleston Catholic. After two regular season defeats to Midland's Gabrielle Beam, McKnight evened the score with Beam by winning head-to-head at the MSAC and regional tournament.

White teamed with freshman Paige Phillips to earn the region's top seed at No. 3 doubles after a season split with Huntington. They beat Huntington again for the Region 4 crown.

Goff and Summer Berardi reached the finals at No. 2 doubles to qualify.

Ragle noticed the uptick in confidence after the first loss to Huntington.

"The drive up that hill is a little intimidating, I think, with all those state championship signs," she said. "As the season has gone on, their confidence is building. They can see that, hey, we can do this. The ninth-graders aren't intimidated and the seniors see that it's not like in the past."

McKnight qualified at No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles. She teams with senior Vivian Yao, a senior who went 6-1 playing a limited schedule at No. 2 singles. Freshman Lindsay Goff went 15-2. White's singles losses were to Huntington (twice), Ripley (MSAC) and an injury default against St. Albans.

At states, a team earns one point for each match win.

McKnight gets the first shot when No. 1 singles play begins at 8 a.m. She drew University's Ally Rees, who made it to the second round of states last year before running into buzzsaw and eventual state champ Cassie Mercer of Huntington.

Yao plays at 10 a.m. against Parkersburg's Amber Kesterson. McKnight and Yao are scheduled to play University in doubles at 2:30 p.m.

Goff will go against Washington's Amber Barr at No. 3 singles in the early afternoon.

No. 4 singles and No. 2 and No. 3 doubles do not begin play until Friday. How many Hurricane players are still in the state tournament field after today's action will determine the Redskins' state contender status.

"We want to win," Yao said. "We realize this is a great opportunity for Hurricane High School and for our team. These opportunities and chances don't come by often and we want to take advantage of this.

"Even if we don't come out as champions, we'll encourage each other and be there for each other and know that we shared a close bond and something special."

Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at chuck.mcgill@dailymail.com or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.


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