High school tennis: Wonders’ Wellman continues the family tradition – Reuters
By Mike London
RALEIGH – Mother’s Day weekend brought exhaustion, tears of joy, tears of sadness and lasting memories for former tennis star Bailey Gainey.
In the late 1990s, Gainey was a 5-foot fireball for the AL Brown Wonders, an individual state qualifier. She was a second team All-South Atlantic Conference player for the Catawba Indians in 2002.
On Friday, Gainey watched his son, AL Brown’s Jayden Wellman, compete in the 4A State Championships in Raleigh. The overwhelming feeling for her was pride. Proud of how he stayed humble with a first-round victory. Pride in how he handled a season-ending loss.
Wellman rolled in his opening round match before losing a tough match in the quarterfinals, but he’ll be back.
He’s a junior who hasn’t filled out yet. He could be a monster as a senior. He wants it pretty badly, and these guys (or gals) always have a chance of achieving their goals, no matter how high they set the bar.
“Well, when you come to the States, everybody’s really good,” Wellman said. “You’re quite nervous because there won’t be an easy game with someone who’s been successful there. I’m still improving, I’m still learning, so I’d rather lose a hard one than win an easy one. That’s how it’s always been for me, and I think that’s why I got better.
AL Brown hasn’t been heard from tennis at the state level for a generation. In Gainey’s day, there were also guys in school who really knew how to play. In 1998, Reid Chaney and Jess Rutledge teamed up to win the 3A State Doubles Championship.
But 1998 was also the last time the AL Brown men’s program qualified for the double-team state playoffs.
The AL Brown girls haven’t made the double-team playoffs since 2004.
This dryness gives you an idea of Wellman’s unusual talent. Kannapolis lacks the tennis tradition of neighboring schools such as Concord and Salisbury.
Wellman’s advantage over his peers was having a mother and grandfather (Steve Gainey) who could teach him the ins and outs of the game at an early age. He was swinging a racquet with a goal before he could read and write.
“In those early days, I was just going to hit with the family,” Wellman said. “We were trying to find an open court somewhere and we were playing for maybe half an hour, an hour, when and where we could. I learned to love the game and it became important to me to carry on a family tradition of tennis. It’s a winning tradition.
Wellman won his first USTA tournament in Mooresville at age 12.
He came to AL Brown as a rookie eager to do big things, but it was the 2020 season that was halted after a handful of games by COVID. He didn’t play tennis in school in 2021, but he continued to train diligently with Concord’s Sports Center Tennis Club pro Mark Allen.
He has improved considerably, but he was still a mystery man when he returned to the courts for the Wonders this season.
AL Brown’s opener was against strong South Rowan a few miles away. The Raiders won 7-2.
The Wonders’ points came in singles No. 1 — Wellman won 6-0, 6-0 over Joey Caraccio, one of Rowan County’s best and a 3A state qualifier. Wellman and partner Steben Velasquez also won a No. 1 doubles match.
“Joey is a really good player with a big serve,” Wellman said. “But I had a good day. It was a great way to start the season.”
The Wonders play in the 4A Greater Metro Conference, a solid league, especially Lake Norman and Cox Mill. The Wonders have not won a two-team match, but Wellman has lost only once during the regular season at No. 1 in singles. That setback was for a player who turned out to be his nemesis – Lake Norman junior Walker Valentine, who was undefeated this season until the 4A Midwest Regional and finished in the top four in the state.
“I’ve lost four games all season and three to Walker Valentine,” Wellman said. “It’s my Kryptonite. I haven’t figured out how to beat him yet. The good news is that I got closer each time we played.
Players qualify for individual regional play through their respective conference tournaments. Wellman again lost to Valentine in the conference tournament, but was one of four Greater Metro Conference singles players to advance to the 4A Midwest Regional.
The top four from Greater Metro, Central Piedmont, Metro (Guilford County) and South Carolina (Union County) gathered at Grimsley High in Greensboro for the regional. Only four of those 16 players would advance to the state event.
It was a test. Wellman survived it by placing third.
The critical match was his quarter-final win against one of Metro’s representatives. This victory placed him in the regional semifinals and earned his ticket to the state tournament.
“We had all the regional experience in that one game,” Wellman said. “Three sets and three hours. It was getting dark when we finished.
The next day, his third-place match with Mount Tabor standout Adam Cartwright lasted over two hours. Wellman released that one as well.
Just making the state tournament made it a very successful season for everyone there, but Wellman wanted more. His 6-4, 6-4 second-round loss to Pinecrest’s Marshall Landry (who finished second in the state) was disappointing, but not deflating.
“I couldn’t be crazy with the way I played, but he was an opponent with plenty of weapons and no weaknesses,” Wellman said.
Wellman doesn’t look like a star at first sight. He looks like the kid next door mowing your lawn.
He is not imposing. He’s 5-foot-10, maybe 5-foot-11 in his sneakers, and he doesn’t weigh much.
He looks like a natural distance runner, but he said his second favorite sport was basketball, like his mother’s. She used to frame some for the Wonders after the tennis season.
“I’m just this skinny guy,” Wellman said with a laugh. “I’m not going to dominate anyone, but I’ll try to outplay you and I’ll try to use the whole pitch. I think I’m pretty creative – I can hit any shot – and I’m tenacious. I never give up, no matter how low I might go, and I will fight for every point. I learned to take advantage of short balls, I learned to take advantage of any ball that floats. A combination of creativity and tenacity and playing smart can take you far.
This has taken him as far as he can go this season. The top eight in the top state rankings are not to be overlooked.
Wellman’s senior season goals: come back, help the Wonders win a two-team game, find a way to beat Valentine.
Wellman is considered a 2-star rookie, although he managed with 3 stars and beat several.
Her dream is to get a tennis scholarship. He’s an excellent student, so there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have the opportunity. It is open to all levels. He just wants to go somewhere where he can study hard and play hard and where the team has a chance to win.
Wellman said he received invitations from players at other high schools with deeper tennis programs than the Wonders, but he has no plans to move. He enjoys playing for AL Brown and for coach Garrett Deal and he enjoys playing doubles with Velasquez.
Basically, the child is bleeding green and white, just like his mother did a generation ago. Apples don’t fall far from the tree.
“I love being a wonder and I’m proud to be a wonder,” Wellman said. “It’s fun to play for AL Brown because sports are so important to this school.”
Tennis has become a bit more important for everyone in Kannapolis this weekend.
Wellman’s favorite subject is history – and he has.