By Matt Hill
Carlton Tugman had the upper “forehand” on Thursday.
The Johnson County Longhorn tennis standout put on a dazzling display with his forehand passing shots, and as a result defeated a tough Conly Shults from Unicoi County 6-1, 6-2 in the opening round of the District 1-A/AA boys singles tournament at the Elizabethton High Tennis Complex.
Tugman will face Elizabethton’s Tyler Lee in one semifinal while Unicoi’s Matt Holka takes on Elizabethton’s Ward Tanner in the other.
In boys doubles, both EHS teams — Andy Bowers and Landon Jones, and Zach Peters and Ryan Pinkerman — advanced to the semifinals.
In girls singles, top seeded Mallory Jackson from Unicoi takes on Elizabethton’s Madison Boles and Johnson County’s Holly Adams will have a showdown with Sullivan North’s Makenna Smith. In girls doubles, Haley Thacker and Christine Hardin advanced as the top seed.
Tugman looked like he was focused on the prize, but the most impressive thing was how well he was hitting his forehand.
Tugman is a Milligan College signee, and he showed just how good he could be by nailing forehand winners left and right.
Shults rallied well, but just like when he was ahead 4-1 in the first set, Tugman hit back-to-back winners from the forehand side that Shults couldn’t do anything about.
One game in the second set, Tugman hit three forehand winners back-to-back-to-back, and very rarely on the afternoon did he hit one out.
Throw in some strong play at the net, and Tugman’s afternoon couldn’t be much better.
“The past week I’ve been hitting pretty bad,” Tugman said. “I hit with Adam Henderson from Emory & Henry and then my brother (Milligan College tennis player Wade Tugman), and that really helped me get into rythmn. That’s what helped me out.
Of course, Carlton and Wade will be teammates at Milligan next year, but the younger Tugman has already had the opportunity to use their facilities and get access to the coaches and training staff. All of this is giving him an advantage, as he is trying to earn an elusive trip to Murfreesboro for the state tournament.
“It helps me out a lot because I practice with their team once a week or so, and hitting with those guys gives me quality balls to hit,” Tugman said.
All the experience Tugman has gained playing collegiate players paid off against a solid Shults. Tugman looked lethargic in the first game, losing at love.
It was that point in the match where Tugman knew he had to get his game face on, and a spirited conversation with Johnson County head tennis coach Steve Nave helped do the trick.
“The first game I thought it was going to be a lot easier than what it was and Coach Nave said, ‘You’ve got to go out there and take care of business. Losing that first game made me mad and kind of set a fire under me,” Tugman said. “I came out really focused the next few games and took nine straight.
“Conly is by far the best No. 4 seed in the conference. Conly gave me a run last year in the semifinals. I saw the draw and I was kind of like ‘Why do I have to play him second round?”
Tugman is the top seed in the district tournament, but there was a chance early on in the week that the No. 2 seed, Holka, might not get seeded because he played No. 3 for Unicoi. However, the Three Rivers Conference coaches did the right thing and gave him a seed.
The thought of possibly being put into a situation where he might draw Holka was on Tugman’s mind heading into this tournament.
“I was very glad he was seeded,” Tugman said. “I didn’t want to get matched up with him too early. You never know what’s going to happen early.”
If Tugman and Holka get by their semifinal matches, they will have advanced to the regionals as the top two in each bracket move on. It would also set up a dynamic final.
Tugman has a game plan that he hopes will lead to his first district title.
“I’m going to grind it out,” he said. “(Johnson County head boys basketball coach) Austin Atwood has kind of prepared me to grind out everything I had to do in basketball to help me take it over into tennis (today).
“There is no overpowering him. so I’m going to try and take my shots when I can. Besides that, I’m just going to try and play my game.”
This is also a home tournament of sorts for Tugman, and he is also a favorite among the Elizabethton High School tennis team.
Tugman feels right at home in the place where he will be living starting in the fall.
“It may be even more home than my own home matches,” he said. “A lot of my friends play baseball and softball, and the basketball team is already training again doing personal workouts, so a lot of those guys don’t get to come to my matches. But when I come over here I know about everybody and most of my family gets to come.”
Though Tugman is a proud Longhorn, he is a big part of the Cyclone tennis family as well.
“They’re all really great guys,” he said. “I wouldn’t put anybody in front of them. I will say that much.”
Matches begin today at 10 a.m. with the semfinals first, then the championship.