Hilton Head Island High School's path to a seventh consecutive state championship will be a little bit longer this season.
For six years now, the Seahawks girls tennis team has feasted on its Class 3-A competition in a postseason setup that has been relatively easy to maneuver. But a S.C. High School League change to this year's playoffs will more aptly test Hilton Head High's mettle, as the playoffs have grown from a group of 16 teams in 2012 to a 31-team field in 2013.
Whereas it took just three wins to reach the state championship last season, coach Jennifer Weitekamper's group will now have to claim five matches to ensure a return trip to Columbia. The true test may come in next week's potential third-round matchup, where Hilton Head High would likely travel to Myrtle Beach for a spot in the Lower State semifinals.
"Our Lower State is heavier than our Upper State," Weitekamper said. "We've got solid tennis down here. I honestly feel like Myrtle Beach may be tougher than Lower State or state itself."
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To get there, however, the Seahawks must first dispatch fourth-seeded St. James in Tuesday afternoon's first round. They are one of three teams opening up the tennis playoffs today, as Region 8-AAAA champion Bluffton hosts West Ashley while Beaufort High travels to No. 2-seeded Stratford.
All three matches start at 4 p.m.
"We've got a lot out of this team," Bobcats coach Bob Brown said. "We're an OK team. We're not a phenomenal team. We're playing as good as we can play right now. We're pretty realstic about who we are."
Bluffton (12-4, 9-1) has overachieved this season with a youthful roster winning not on talent but instead with heart, Brown said. The Bobcats lost last year's No. 1, Catie Meighan, to Hilton Head Prep and went about rebuilding with a relatively new group of faces.
Bluffton recently capped off its impressive run through region play with a 4-2 triumph over Beaufort High, which could host a second-round matchup if No. 4-seeded Richland Northeast knocks off Dutch Fork. Otherwise, the Eagles would travel to Columbia on Thursday afternoon to take on one of the state's premier teams.
The Bobcats, meanwhile, would host another home game Thursday against the Carolina Forest and Lexington winner Thursday should they get past the Wildcats.
"We're at the top of our game right now." Brown said. "We rattled off 11 straight victories, we didn't lose a home region match. We outperformed everybody in the region. Like I said, we're not a fantastically talented team. We're just doing it with big heart and big effort right now."
The Seahawks will look for a similar effort against the Sharks as they make plans for another championship ring. Things appear to be falling into place for Hilton Head High, which has finally settled on a No. 2 doubles tandem which is supported by a skillful No. 1 team of Jenn Oliver and Kate Cram that has yet to take the court this season.
"It's one or done," Weitekamper said. "We can do this. We've got to look down the road."
Note: All matches start at 4 p.m.
(4) St. James at (1) Hilton Head High
(3) West Ashley at (1) Bluffton
(3) Beaufort High at (2) Stratford