While 12 area teams enter this year’s state tennis playoffs with high hopes, for some, the road leading to the finals will be a true test of will.
Both Gainesville programs, the Flowery Branch girls, North Hall girls and Buford boys teams boast top playoff seedings after winning region championships last week. Even so, anything can happen in a tournament pool that typically leaves most metro-Atlanta programs still standing in the latter rounds.
North Hall coach Bob Woodworth could speak for other participating schools when he says the expectations are elevated, despite an intimidating bracket.
“I’m hopeful,” said Woodworth, who in his 16th season coaching both North Hall programs. “...The competition just varies depending on how the brackets go.”
Woodworth’s Lady Trojans will have to overcome a big hurdle if they want to match, if not top, last season’s feat of a first-ever state semifinal berth. And it could be waiting as early as the second round. In the same quadrant, defending Class 3A champion and No. 2 seed Westminster could be next for the Lady Trojans if both are victorious in the opener. Woodworth watched as his girls were swept by the Lady Wildcats last spring in Atlanta.
But hearing of the Wildcats’ shortfall against Pace Academy during region tournament play, while having the luxury of home-court advantage, gives Woodworth a little more confidence in his youthful but experienced lineup.
“I will tell ya, anybody can beat anybody (in high school tennis), and the fact that somebody beat them already just shows ya,” Woodworth said. “We’re gonna give it every chance we got as always.”
The Lady Trojans open the Class 3A tournament at home against No. 4 Hart County on Thursday in Gainesville.
As for his boys, the No. 3 seeded Trojans seek a better outcome after falling short in the opening round last season. Woodworth has faith in a solid starting seven — including senior staples Masa Kobayashi and Christian Boychuk in singles — that will attempt to upset No. 2 Franklin County on Wednesday in Carnesville.
The same could be said for coach Sean Gilbert’s Buford programs. His top-seeded boys and No. 2 seeded girls open the Class 5A bracket at home. They draw first-round opponents out of a strong Region 7-5A that includes 2017 state runner-up Carrollton.
If victorious, the treacherous road could continue against another tennis powerhouse in Riverwood for both Buford teams in the next round.
“(Riverwood) has a couple of really good girls, and they have a whole lot of tradition,” Gilbert said. “They are from one of those areas known for good tennis. ...That north Sandy Springs, north Fulton area cannot be taken lightly.”
And even further down the road, a potential rematch of last year’s state semifinal clash — Buford and defending Class 5A champion Starr’s Mill — may loom for Gilbert’s senior-laden boys if successful in their quadrant.
“(Starr’s Mill) has had multiple state championships. ...They are kind of the standard,” Gilbert said. “And Carrollton, same way. They’ve been there the last (two) years. ...They set the bar on the boys side.”
Luckily, Gilbert’s programs can draw strength from a neutral tournament played two weeks prior in Chattanooga (Tennessee), where Buford faced and even defeated some of the countries leading programs — including Carrollton — in their respective pool.
Gilbert agreed the timing couldn’t of been better.
“(Buford assistant) coach Scott Grothe was instrumental in us wanting to get into that tournament,” the Wolves’ coach said. “The girls played Woodland in a first-round matchup, and the boys played Carrollton. We could play them both down the road. “That’s a very interesting turn of events. “I would hope that we are gonna see the benefit of that as time goes by.”
Both Buford teams host first-round matches at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Buford City Park.
Meanwhile, the defending Region 8-5A champion Flowery Branch girls, have the potential to ride home-court advantage through the state quarterfinals. Even with only two seniors in their starting seven (Brenna Martin and Olivia Correa), the Lady Falcons are poised for another deep run on the heels of a state-quarterfinal appearance a year ago. It all begins against No. 4 Rome on Tuesday in Flowery Branch.
The boys, too, will face Rome today immediately following the girls match. A win would put the No. 2 Falcons back in the second round after their first-round exit last spring.
Both playoff matches for Flowery Branch will be played at Davis Middle School.
In Class 6A, the Gainesville boys and girls boast No. 1 seeds and begin their postseason quests at Longwood Park in Gainesville. The defending Region 8-6A Lady Red Elephants, under first-year coach Kendall Gruhn, open against a strong No. 4 seed in Johns Creek at 4 p.m. on Wednesday.
“The Region 7 is one of the toughest in the state in terms of tennis,” said Gruhn, who houses four returning starters — three seniors — from last season’s playoff team. They’re home to several state champions, so we know it’s going to be a battle.”
The Lady Red Elephants suffered a tough first-round defeat against Allatoona last spring, and have not advanced beyond the second round since 2014, when it reached the state quarterfinals.
“Who knows what will happen Wednesday, but I never underestimate this team,” Gruhn said. “They’ve really stepped it up when they needed to (this year).”
After capturing its first region title since 2015, the top-seeded Gainesville boys get No. 4 Centennial in the first round at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. Gruhn said they plan to cheer on their male counterparts come match day.
Area playoff schedule
Flowery Branch girls vs. Rome, 2:30 p.m.
Gainesville boys vs. Centennial, 2:30 p.m.
Flowery Branch boys vs. Rome, 3:30 p.m.
Buford girls vs. Woodland, 4 p.m.
Buford boys vs. Kell, 4 p.m.
Chestatee boys at Jefferson, 4:30 p.m.
Gainesville girls vs. Johns Creek, 4 p.m.
West Hall girls at St. Pius X, 4 p.m.
North Hall boys at Franklin County, 5 p.m.
North Hall girls vs. Hart County, 4 p.m.
Johnson boys at Carrollton, 4 p.m.
Chestatee girls at North Oconee (time unknown)