The energy in the locker room at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center in Chapel Hill was electric. As soon as the players shook hands, there was an immediate locker room celebration that consisted of cheering, high fives and smiles that reflected the No. 23 North Carolina men's tennis team's success against No. 13 South Carolina.
The Tar Heels defeated their rival in a 4-2 victory at home on Sunday and were led by senior Brian Cernoch, who stood above the rest due to his individual victory that clinched the team’s win.
Cernoch won his first doubles match with senior Mac Kiger, but it was his singles win over South Carolina's Toby Samuel that secured the victory for the Tar Heels.
Cernoch and Samuel faced off last March, and Samuel crushed his opponent 6-3, 6-1. It was a loss that Cernoch — who was second-team All-ACC honors and MVP of the ITA National Indoor Team Championship — did not see coming.
He approached this match against Samuel with a completely different method this season — and received a different result.
“Coming into this match, I was really trying to dial in on my game style and focusing on playing each point with a purpose and taking it one point at a time,” Cernoch said.
Cernoch was a contributing factor to his doubles team when he and Kiger won their match. Playing against South Carolina's No. 14 Daniel Rodrigues is always difficult, as he beat former Tar Heel William Blumberg last season.
UNC’s first doubles pair stayed confident and consistent throughout their tough match to beat Rodrigues and Connor Thomson 7-5.
The confidence that Cernoch played with reverberated throughout the Tar Heel team.
Junior Anuj Watane knew coming into this match that he would have to play up to his competition. Though he did not play against South Carolina last season, he knew his victory over Jake Beasley on Sunday could spark a flame.
After being 3-0 this season, Watane did not feel like he needed to change up his playing style to be successful during the match.
“Coming into my serve, that is something that is hard for me to trust," Watane said. "I am much stronger from the baseline. I knew that coming into this match, it would be very important for me to get a couple free points off of my serve to make my life a little easier."
Head coach Sam Paul has recognized his team's efforts, but he still knows they have a lot more work to do to stay consistent and confident against a tough lineup.
With the Tar Heels slated to go up against N.C. State on Thursday at home, Paul said the team still has areas of needed improvement.
UNC is currently 5-1 on the season, and with the next few matches coming up, the team must continue to improve if it wants to see success in the rest of the indoor and outdoor season.
With Cernoch’s confidence at an all-time high, it is a possible reality. And a win against the Wolfpack is the perfect way for the team to start.
“South Carolina and N.C. State both have great, successful programs, and for us to beat State this week, we need to make sure we are still learning from that Ohio State loss," Paul said. "It put a lot into perspective."
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