This season, Dalton High’s girls tennis team reclaimed the Region 7-4A title, won 16 matches and made its deepest push into the state tournament since 2000.

But of all the reasons for the Lady Catamounts to remain encouraged despite a season-ending loss to Marist on Thursday, the most comforting one had nothing to do with looking back.

With no seniors in the lineup that fell 3-0 to the Lady Eagles in the quarterfinals of the Class 4A State Tournament, the Lady Cats walked away from their home court for the final time this season knowing they hadn’t waged their last battle for Dalton.

And they have a full offseason to prepare for even bigger goals next year.

“I think now they understand we can play with these people,” Dalton coach David Hilley said, “and next year the quarterfinals isn’t as far as we want to go. We want to make it to the semifinals or the finals. We have to pick it up a couple of notches, but that’s a doable result for us.”

The Lady Eagles (15-7), Region 6-4A’s No. 1 seed, have won 18 state team tennis titles in GHSA competition — including 12 straight and the last six in Class 4A.

Although Hilley regularly schedules tough opponents outside of the region — the Lady Cats (16-5) faced Baylor, Cartersville, Darlington and Red Bank this season alone — he knew his players would have to shake off a bit of nerves and intimidation to get going quickly enough against Marist. While the Lady Cats were unable to push Marist quite as much as Hilley thought them capable, he believes they came out of the match with more confidence in themselves than awe of Marist.

“They went out there and they played and they finally saw, ‘Hey, you know, we’re not bad. We’re a good team,’” Hilley said. “I think that may have surprised us a little bit.”

Marist won with two singles victories and one in doubles.

At No. 1 singles, Laura Patilla defeated Jennifer Enck, 6-1, 6-1, while Alyssa Gale beat Lawrence Crutchfield, 6-3, 6-2, at No. 2. At No. 1 doubles, Carlee Demetree and Erin Keller claimed Marist’s first team point with a 6-1, 6-4 win over Priya Naik and Allyson Pao.

“We competed a lot better than I thought we would,” Enck said. “I’m proud of everybody for that.”

The other two matches in the best-of-five event were stopped once Marist clinched with Gale’s win. Dalton’s Julie Kinsey claimed a 6-2 victory in the first set against Jenna Jackson but trailed 4-6 in the second of their No. 3 singles match. Dalton’s No. 2 doubles team of Emily Broadrick and Audrey Puryear was up 5-2 in the first set but fell, 7-5, and trailed 5-2 in the second.

“We kind of expected it wouldn’t be easy, but we tried our best,” Crutchfield said. “I’m sure they play a lot more throughout the season and all through the year. As a team, we only play when tennis season starts. We’re going to come back next year.”

Hilley saluted his lineup for its top-to-bottom consistency, but echoed Crutchfield’s thoughts on Marist — he knows catching up with the state’s top programs takes something more.

“I told the girls we can’t wait until January to pick up a racket,” Hilley said. “You need to be picking up your racket next week and start playing. It doesn’t have to be your whole life, I know these girls have other interests and that’s fine. But we can’t say, ‘We did good last year, we’ll be OK next year.’ OK isn’t good enough now — they know what they can do and what they’re capable of.”

As for looking back, Dalton had plenty of good things to remember about the season, including a perfect mark against region opponents during the regular season. But Crutchfield and Enck both commented on the unity of this year’s team as one of it strongest points.

“Our team as a whole has never been this close,” Enck said. “And it’s good to know we’re all coming back next year and we can all work harder and improve and possibly go further.”

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