Even as a ripe freshman on the Flowery Branch High tennis team, Jack Thomas didn’t flinch when Saturday’s Class 5A boys final fell on his racket.
With the final deadlocked at 2-all, the No. 3 singles player for the Falcons could feel the presence of all the Flowery Branch and Buford patrons make their way to the No. 30 court within the Rome Tennis Center.
Even after Buford’s Luke Davidson staved off five match points, and then unloading an echoing overhead winner for 6-5 in the decisive third set, Thomas stuck to a strategy: First and foremost, keep a level head as he continued to weather the storm.
It brought his school a championship in the end.
Thomas forced a third-set tiebreak before running away with a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4) win, clinching the 3-2 victory over top-seeded Buford for the Falcons’ first state title in school history.
After 17 years worth of waiting, Stacey Smallwood’s Falcons tennis program will be the first team program in a bracket format to bring home a trophy for Flowery Branch. It is also the first since the boys cross country team won four state titles in a six-year span (2008-2013).
“You dream about it, you sleep on it night after night,” Smallwood said on the win. “It’s a great feeling, to know with all the work they’ve put in this year, as many different places they’ve had to play, they played with heart. It’ll go down in history, and it’ll be that way as long as the school exists. I’m thrilled and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
The Falcons rightfully engraved themselves in the school’s history books after enduring a 3 hour, 45 minute tug-o-war bout that left both programs as the only ones remaining within the massive, 60-court facility.
Smallwood’s starting seven traded punches with both a fellow region heavyweight and scorching 90-plus degree temperatures. In their third meeting this season, three of the five lines went to decisive third sets, Thomas and Flowery Branch’s No. 1 doubles pair of senior John Hollis and Brody Millwood emerged as the deciding points for the eventual state champions.
“You’re leaving a legacy. It just feels really good looking back on it,” said Millwood, whose No. 1 doubles — 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 — victory proved clutch for the Falcons on Saturday. “I mean, your name’s in the history books, you know? Even getting here was just a big opportunity. Winning it was even better.”
For the second time in a week, Millwood and Hollis were locked in a contested match with their opponents, this time against Buford’s No. 1 pair of senior Cameron DeLoach and Alex Pruitt.
It was back and forth from the get-go. Both doubles teams displayed poise under pressure while on serve, as the Wolves held a 5-4 lead in the second set before taking it. But the Falcons proved more steady, storming back from a 4-1 hole in the third. Millwood’s battle cry traveled throughout the facility as he and Hollis broke back for 5-4, and it was up to Millwood to serve for the match.
Millwood and Hollis got it done minutes later, winning on double match point for the 2-1 lead over the Wolves.
“I know my serve is not the best. But when I stepped up there, I just got caught in the moment,” Millwood added. “I realized this was for the team, and I just really needed to do it for myself too.”
“That’s been the hottest team this postseason,” Smallwood added of her top doubles tandem. “They have honestly played so well together, and have gotten better every single match. For them to come back twice in the same week — Monday and today — was huge. Huge.”
It came 40 minutes after Flowery Branch No. 2 singles player Nathan Holley put the Falcons on the board with a straight set (6-1, 6-0) singles win over Buford senior Dalton Counts. Holley’s swift victory tied the match at 1-all after Buford’s senior No. 2 doubles pair of Trent Milton/Kurt Knudsen captured the first point with a 6-2, 6-2 triumph over Gunnar Hetzel and Brady McKey.
All eyes shifted to the remaining singles matches. After losing the opening set 4-6, Flowery Branch’s No. 1 Drayton Matus used a steady backcourt game to force Brady Todd to use every ounce of his talents. Matus overcame Todd’s explosive forehand and effective net game to take the second set 6-4. Matus, who manages living with Type II diabetes, had to take an injury timeout deep into the decider, and Todd took control of the momentum from there.
“The heat makes the diabetes worse, and he dealt with it all year, Smallwood said. “But I think that threw things off a little bit.”
An exhausted Todd let out a scream and fell to his knees from behind the baseline as he ran away with a 6-3 win to deadlock the match a second time for 2-all.
Flowery Branch’s No. 3 was all that remained. Thomas, who lost twice before to Luke Davidson in 2018, knew his opponent would be a tough out.
Thomas was able to keep a level head on multiple occasions after losing the opening set, especially after watching Davidson’s comeback antics in the second and third sets. Entering the tiebreak, Thomas used a more aggressive approach, unloading a number of hard-hit groundstrokes from the forehand side to stretch the court and keep his opponent on the defensive.
“I just told myself I didn’t want to go down pushing,” Thomas said. “I swung away, and it worked out.”
Thomas deployed a forehand winner down the line on the deuce side for 6-4, and on match point, Davidson’s final return sailed long as a mob of Falcon teammates rushed the court.
Chants of “He’s our freshman” filled the air, and Thomas was the first to hoist the state championship trophy in celebration.
In was Davidson’s first three-set match all season, he nearly claimed the match for Buford before Thomas rallied from love-30 down at 6-5 to force the tiebreak.
“(Davidson) has been Steady Eddie, unflappable,” Buford coach Sean Gilbert said. “If there was anybody to put the pressure on, it was him. And he hadn’t played a third set all year. ...In that kind of situation, you have to find something extra, and he did. Just came up three points short.”
It was a season that truly defined Smallwood’s Falcons as a resilient bunch led by only two starting seniors (Holley, Hollis). It was a squad which before this season, had never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs. Four times the Falcons finished short at the hands of the neighboring Wolves already, the fourth time a region title loss resulting in Flowery Branch taking the No. 2 playoff seeding.
Only this time, the Falcons beat the odds. Smallwood’s starting seven, overcoming illness and a shorthanded lineup at times, endured a grueling postseason spent mostly on the road. After a swift defeat of Rome at home in the opener, the Falcons rattled off four more victories on long road trips, including a thrilling finish over McIntosh in the semifinals earlier in the week en route to the unforgettable finish.
As for Buford, only a handful of points separated Sean Gilbert’s senior-laden Wolves from a first-ever state tennis championship. Instead, Gilbert must bid farewell to a stellar class of upperclassmen that leaves behind quite the resume: Back-to-back Region 8-5A titles, and a semifinal defeat of defending state champion Starr’s Mill to clinch its first championship berth under the long-tenured coach.
In the end, an emotional Gilbert still marveled at a lineup that fought to the very end.
“I just can’t get over what they were able to do, the fact they never gave up,” Gilbert said. “We had to overcome a lot, but we got a strong effort from Flowery Branch. Give them the most credit, the fact they came in with a pretty sizeable chip on their shoulder — I would say — and rightfully so. ...Today was their day. But can’t fault our guys’ efforts and they never gave up.”