16BrothersGene Autry gave himself a tough act to follow this season after guiding Terry Sanford’s boys’ tennis team to the 3-A dual team finals last year against perennial power Marvin Ridge.

“I thought we would have another good year,’’ he said of the 2017 season. “Where it ends, we don’t know, but we are looking to
do well.’’

So far, the Bulldogs are, and they took a big step in that direction last week with a 6-3 win over their toughest Cape Fear region rival, Union Pines.

Terry Sanford beat the Vikings in last year’s Eastern Regional championship match. Autry admits he wasn’t sure what to expect from his team when the two squads met for the first time this season at Terry Sanford last week.

“Sometimes you have a mental letdown when you play an opponent again,’’ Autry said. “We started slow but ended up playing well.’’

As usual, the Bulldogs got solid play and half their wins in the match from brothers Henry and Nathan Lieberman. The brothers play No. 1 and No. 2 singles along with No. 1 doubles and took wins in all three of those matches.

Henry, a junior, is in his second season at No. 1 singles player while freshman Nathan is making his debut with the Bulldogs.

Autry said Henry continues to be the same solid player and team leader he was last season. “Everybody looks up to him and tries to follow his leadership,’’ Autry said of Henry. “He’s hitting a lot more solid shots and his ball is heavier. That means it’s taking different spins and a lot more action.’’ Autry said Henry’s footwork is also improved, which is key to putting his total game together.

Henry said having his brother join him on the team this season has been a good experience. “He motivates me because he gets under my skin,’’ Henry said.         “It’s that brother rivalry.’’

Henry said his brother is also a solid player. “He makes you hit good shots over and over to win a point against him,’’ Henry said. “He’s working on his net game and his serve. He’s quick and anticipates well.’’

Nathan said his brother is equally inspiring to him. “He drives me to get better and motivates me,’’ Nathan said. “We definitely just pump each other up, stay positive and don’t let negative things in our heads.’’

A rematch with Union Pines is looming on April 10. Following that will be the chase for the regional and state championships.

Henry said he’s already decided on competing in singles in the state individual tournament. Nathan will soon decide if he wants to try singles or get a new doubles partner and compete for that title.

“We really need to stay focused, have that intensity in practice,’’ Nathan said. “If we don’t get lazy I think we’ll be great.’’

The Liebermans aren’t the only good players on the Bulldog team. Andrew Zahran is back from last year. Autry said he along with Alex Kasari and Dev Sashidhar are also key players.

“To go back and win again against Union Pines is going to be tough,’’ Autry said, referring to the upcoming rematch. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, keep our head about us and play the tennis we’re capable of, we should do well.’’

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