BY ROCKY STANLEY
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
ASHLAND It’s a whole new adventure for Maci Ferguson after winning two state doubles championships and four 16th Region titles while playing with best friend and current West Virginia State freshman Kierstin Hensley.
Ferguson, a junior, is competing in the singles draw at the region tournament for the first time in a high school career dating back to fifth grade.
“It’s definitely a new experience,” the top seed said after beating No. 3 Jessica Burton of Boyd County 6-0, 6-1 in the semifinals Tuesday afternoon. “Playing singles, I definitely had to get use to hitting the ball harder. In doubles, it’s a lot more about placement and setting up the point.” Back in March, Ferguson won the Pre-Region tournament girls doubles title with younger sister Mia. And it wasn’t until two weeks ago that the final decision was made about Maci playing singles at regionals.
“There were a lot of variables. Maci wanted the opportunity,” said Larra Ferguson, who is wearing three hats this week. Maci and Mia’s mother is also Russell’s girls coach as well as first-time manager of the region tournament. “Fortunately, it worked out and opened up the fourth seed (for us) in doubles.”
Rain and academic testing at area schools contributed to a long day of competition on the Ashland Tennis Center’s four indoor courts. Several quarterfinal matches had to be carried over from Monday.
“Between testing, rain, and the two-match rule (daily limit per player), it’s been quite a challenge to get all these matches scheduled,” Larra Ferguson said. “Thank goodness for Jerry (Groce) and all the people at the tennis center. We are very fortunate for them to allow us to use it the way they do.”
Weather permitting, today’s championship matches will be played on the ATC outside courts beginning at 4:30 p.m. Both of Ferguson’s daughters will be shooting for titles. Maci faces Greenup County’s Madison Hill — the 2015 region singles winner who finished runner-up last year. Hill, the No. 2 seed, posted a 6-2, 6-1 semifinal win over Ashland’s Emma Hill.
Maci defeated Madison Hill during the regular season as one of her several quality wins. She’s looking for another one today.
“I would like to get a seed at state,” Maci said.
Eighth-grader Mia Ferguson had a big growth spurt similar to Maci’s at the same age, and Little Sister’s game is on the rise. Mia advanced to her first region final, teaming with senior Claudia Kendrick to defeat Ashland’s Emma Johnson and Hollie Hedrick 6-1, 6-4 in the night’s final match. Russell clinched its fifth consecutive region team crown.
The younger Ferguson and Kendrick will go up against East Carter’s first girls to reach a region final. Senior Milena Clarke and junior Makenzie Hayes had coach Jeff Porter beaming after their 7-5, 6-0 victory over Russell’s Ashley Nguyen and Kendall Jackson.
“This is huge,” said Porter, who is in his 24th year coaching the team. “This is tremendous. I’m very thrilled. We’ve been close often. We’d had a really good girls team since like 2012 and been EKC team champions. Once we come here, we get beaten by higher seeds.”
The Lady Raiders didn’t have to worry about that this time. Clarke and Hayes performed up to their No. 1 seeding with a strong second set in the semifinals.
“It was like, ‘OK, we are going to finish this off,’” Hayes said. “We have worked really hard this season.”
Said Clarke: “It’s a really good feeling. We play well with each other, just a good chemistry. Makenzie makes up for what I don’t do, and I do the same for her. In the second set, we got a good rhythm going and rolled off it.”
The performance continued a big school year for Clarke. She started in the post for the Lady Raiders’ region runnerup basketball team and signed a National Letter of Intent to join Indiana’s rowing team.
“It’s been crazy, but it’s been a lot of fun,” she said.
On the boys side, Ashland wrapped up the region title while advancing both singles players and its No. 1 doubles team to the finals.
“To be honest, we just wanted to get better every day and be in the hunt,” coach Eddie Sizemore said. “That’s all you can ask.”
The Tomcats have now won 13 region championships in 17 years under Sizemore’s direction, including three of the last four.
Ashland went 16-2 in head-to-head competition this season, losing only to Henry Clay and Covington Catholic.
“Both are top-four teams in the state and we lost to both 5-4,” Sizemore said. “So we’ve been in the hunt from the get-go.”
Ashland avenged the Henry Clay setback 4-1 on the last weekend of the regular season. The same day, the Tomcats knocked off nemesis Huntington High.
“That’s the first time one of my teams has beaten them,” Sizemore said. “I think this team is more of a team than any team we’ve ever had. They want each other to do well. They cheer for each other. It started during the region and state tournament last year. We’ve been training together all year.”
Teammates Robby Krick and Parker Clarke will meet for the top prize in region singles after dropping only three games — combined — against Greenup County’s Gabe Foit and Russell’s Michael Eastham.
In doubles, Ashland’s top-seeded Layne Meek and Will Frye moved past Rowan County’s Bryce Kidd and Jacob Barber 6-1, 6-0. Russell’s Wes Patterson and Chandler Nguyen won the other semifinal over Ashland’s Wesley Whelan and Dillon Lucas 6-2, 6-0.
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