En route to a state tennis semifinal match against Starr’s Mill on Tuesday, Sean Gilbert’s senior-laden Buford High program was reminded of its heartbreaking 2016 first-round loss as their school bus passed the exit for Woodward Academy.
It also told them just how far they’ve come ever since.
The top-seeded Wolves dismantled defending Class 5A champion Starr’s Mill, 3-0, in the hours to follow, earning a place in state championship for the first time. Coach Gilbert’s four seniors — Dalton Counts, Cameron Deloach, Kurt Knudsen, Trent Milton — will get the chance to finish their varsity careers on a high note.
“When these boys were freshmen, we didn’t even make the state tournament,” Gilbert said. “What these boys have bought into, and what they have resolved to be and to do, it’s what high school sports is all about. It’s really awesome to see them earn this spot the way they have. ..And they showed it (Tuesday). Oh boy, it was a day I hope to never forget.”
The same could be said for Stacey Smallwood’s young Flowery Branch High squad, which before this year had never been beyond the second round of the playoffs. The No. 2 seeded Falcons — with only two seniors in their lineup — powered through their quadrant, even overcoming adversity at times. They clinched a first-ever state championship berth with a 3-0 win over McIntosh on Monday.
In what will be the third installment of this Region 8 showdown in 2018, this one is for the Class 5A title at the colossal Rome Tennis Center at Berry College, the new home of the GHSA tennis championships.
It prolongs a postseason trend set by both schools, established by the girls basketball programs this year. In March, the Lady Wolves defeated Flowery Branch in both the region and Class 5A championships.
“It speaks volumes, not just for the talent within these two schools, but also within our area,” said Smallwood, in her third season at Flowery Branch. “We’re 10 minutes from each other. And to say there’s that much talent within a 10 or 15-mile radius is pretty impressive; whether it’s in tennis, basketball or whatever. It says a lot for both communities and schools to be playing in another championship.”
Smallwood mentioned in the weeks prior that a loss to Buford in the region championship sparked this monumental run. But she was required to juggle the pieces of this starting lineup all throughout the postseason in order to make a rematch possible.
Without a sick Brady McVey at No. 2 doubles, the Falcons cruised to an opening round victory over Rome before hitting the road. The following week, Flowery Branch garnered a 4-0 quarterfinal triumph over Statesboro despite a four-hour trek to the school and missing the aid of No. 2 singles player Nathan Holley, who was unable to make the trip.
“I tell ya, seems like they have a magical thing going, you know?” Gilbert said of Flowery Branch. “It’s just one after another: That long road trip to Statesboro, or overcoming two men down. That’s not normal, that’s special. Those boys have done a great job.”
But it was the Falcons’ semifinal bout with McIntosh that had Smallwood stricken with an array of emotions, also giving her the indication this team was ready for the big stage. She watched her starting seven rally around one another while playing for a cause greater than their own.
Senior and No. 1 doubles player John Hollis, whose father died days before making the trip, clinched the match alongside his freshman partner Brody Millwood in a three-set thriller — 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (3). Smallwood said the team dedicated their efforts to their classmate after the death of his father.
“In high school tennis, if you play only for yourself, you’re in the wrong business,” Smallwood said. “You’re playing for each other, you’re playing for your school and you’re playing for your community. I really feel like they have gelled as a team. They understand it’s going to take three wins for us to win this Saturday.”
Buford has won all four meetings against Flowery Branch since the Class 5A merger, tallying 3-2 and 3-1 wins against Flowery Branch in 2018. She is hoping Saturday’s meeting will be the day this winless streak ends, as Flowery Branch moves down to Class 4A in the fall.
Buford won’t be paying much attention to past success.
“Each match has its own life,” Gilbert said. “You have ups and downs, and have the ball bounce a certain way. ...All kinds of variables can go into play, and the biggest difference is the stage. It is going to be different this time. It’s the first time for us, and the first time for (Flowery Branch).”
Both coaches also must brace for a scorching weekend forecast that awaits all finalists in Rome. While temperatures are expected to reach the low 90s, players on the court could see upwards of 100-degree conditions.
“I told (my guys) the finish line is Saturday at 4 o’clock,” Gilbert said. “We’ve gotta get there and make sure we’re prepared mentally, spiritually and physically. And just let the chips fall where they may.”
However, it’s going to take a lot more to sway both programs off course.
“These kids, they’re hungry,” Smallwood said. “We’ve come this far, so what’s stopping you, you know?”
Class 5A boys state championship
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Rome Tennis Center at Berry College