High School Sports

Bluffton girls tennis advances to 4-A Lower State final

Bluffton No. 1 singles player Natalie Bassett runs down a shot during her singles match with Caitlin Daly as the Bobcats take on James Island in the third round of the Class 4-A playoffs on Wednesday. Bassett, who is a seventh-grader, is 19-0 for the season.
Bluffton No. 1 singles player Natalie Bassett runs down a shot during her singles match with Caitlin Daly as the Bobcats take on James Island in the third round of the Class 4-A playoffs on Wednesday. Bassett, who is a seventh-grader, is 19-0 for the season. jkarr@islandpacket.com

Cooper Baxter casually shook her opponent's hand at the net, then walked to the fence and picked up the stray tennis balls.

There was no smile, no first pump. Nothing.

Just from watching her, it was hard to tell she'd just won the biggest point in Bluffton High School girls tennis.

When Baxter put away James Island's Emily Loring on Wednesday in the third-set tiebreaker, 10-4, she earned the decisive fourth point and sealed Bluffton's 5-1 win to send the Bobcats to the Class 4-A Lower State championship.

Bluffton (15-4) will host the winner of Thursday's 5 p.m. match between 4-A powers Wando and Lexington. The Lower State Championship is at 4 p.m. Monday.

"I really kept it inside," Baxter said of her post-win demeanor. "I didn't want to explode or get really excited or smile. I feel like that's rude to the other person, and I wouldn't want them to do that to me. I just tried to keep it inside.

"But on the inside, I was really happy."

Baxter had a chance to put the match away, serving for the win at 5-4 with a triple match point. But she let it slip away.

"I can't play an easy match," Baxter said. "I have to take it really far, really long. Mentally, if I'm up, I'll be more relaxed until something upsets me and I'm like, 'OK, I have to stop this," and I'll start playing my game."

Bluffton head coach Bob Brown said the final match was indicative of Baxter's career as a Bobcat, as well as the tenacity of his team.

"Slop it up a little bit and then dig in and fight and get a W at the end, the hard way," Brown said. "As a whole, that's who we are. We've got to do things the hard way, every time. Because we're now just starting to see some thoroughbreds come through the program."

When he's talking about new thoroughbreds, for the most part Brown means seventh-grader Natalie Bassett. Bassett started the year at No. 5. Now, she's firmly entrenched as the Bobcats' No. 1 with a 19-0 record to boot.

Bassett handled James Island's Caitlin Daly with ease, 6-0, 6-2. Like a human backboard, Bassett returned everything, rarely making an error while frustrating Daly with her lack of pace.

Much smaller and slighter than most of the older players she faces, including Daly, Bassett dictated the match remarkably.

"The way she played ... she would get overexcited ..." Bassett said. "I never play to the ability of the other player. Some girls have different paces. As soon as I hit the court, I try to figure out just what that is."

Before the season, Brown knew Bassett was going to be good for the Bobcats. He just didn't know it would be this good.

"We knew she was solid and she's tough as nails and a good tournament player," he said. "But she beat Hilton Head, she beat Prep. She beat people she wasn't supposed to beat. All-time (Bluffton) record best (win) streak, most wins, highest-quality wins. And she's in the seventh grade.

"If you can win at 1 and 2, the whole world changes. She gives us that chance at 1 and 2."

The Lower State final appearance is a pleasant surprise for the Bobcats, who had never before even reached the third round.

"I didn't expect it, but I'm really happy we're going," Baxter said. "I love my team so much, and I'm happy with all the things that we've accomplished and I couldn't ask for a better senior year."

Brown agreed.

"This is a first in 11 years," Brown said. "This is a real good team. We're overachieving a little right now, but this is a lot of fun seeing this. And well deserved."

Bluffton 5, James Island 1

Singles: 1. Natalie Bassett def. Caitlin Daly 6-0, 6-2; 2. Sadie Glaze (JI) def. Rachel Riley 6-2, 6-4; 3. Cooper Baxter def. Emily Loring 6-3, 6-7, 10-4; 4. Angie Castrillon def. Alyssa Canfield 7-6, 3-6, 10-4; 5. Karina Szatmari def. Samantha Smiley 6-2, 7-5.

Doubles: 2. Muriel Williams/Lauren Bierschenk def. Katie Canfield/Callie Stewart 6-0, 6-0.

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