Following a state quarterfinal loss last spring, Flowery Branch girls tennis coach Ginger Jackson already had high hopes for the Lady Falcons going into 2018.
A 17-1 mark and unscathed region slate (6-0) for the regular season should be ample proof to date. But Jackson isn’t ready to entertain the idea that her program is poised for more on the postseason horizon. Feeling a bit superstitious, the longtime coach just wants to get through this week’s Region 8-5A tournament first, during which the top-seeded Lady Falcons open with a semifinal match against either Johnson or Clarke Central at 3 p.m. today at Buford City Park.
Nearly one year after matching their deepest postseason run, the Flowery Branch girls are one the few area teams looking to prolong their dominance on the region championship stage this week, as the Lady Falcons seek back-to-back region crowns under the 5A classification (fifth overall).
“We’ve been successful so far, but when you get back into a region tournament, everything evens out,” Jackson said. Hopefully my girls will get some of that rust off their rackets (after Spring Break).”
Jackson’s program overcame one-set holes in three of five lines against Buford for a 3-2 win in the region final last April at the same venue. Luckily for Jackson, she will showcase a few of those same staples from last year’s championship lineup, including singles players Annabelle Thomas (No. 1 singles), No. 2 singles unbeaten Olivia Correa and Olivia Nance (No. 3 singles).
Correa and Nance strung together straight-set wins while both of Jackson’s doubles teams pulled off three-set triumphs to boost Flowery Branch to a 4-1 win over the Lady Wolves in a regular season match March 14.
Both teams could be on a collision course toward the finals once more as the Lady Wolves harness the No. 2 seed.
Meanwhile, the No. 1 seed Buford boys (15-3) under coach Sean Gilbert are going for the repeat in the tournament after defeating Flowery Branch in the finals last year. Flowery Branch boys coach Stacey Smallwood anticipates another battle with the Wolves, who defeated Flowery Branch 3-2 in their previous clash during the regular season.
“We feel like we are going to compete,” Smallwood said. “Buford has always had our number in year’s past. And at this point, we’re trying to get to the finals and do well. ...It always comes down to that fifth line (with Buford). I’m hoping the favor can flip to our side this time.”
Smallwood showcases the same starting seven from last year’s region runner-up lineup including sophomore Drayton Matus (No. 1 singles), Nathan Holley (No. 2 singles) and Jack Thomas (No. 3 singles); Brody Millwood/John Hollis and Gunnar Hetzel/Brady McVey in doubles.
The Falcons (14-4) are coming off a strong regular season despite dropping three contested matches in a neutral March tournament, enough to earn the No. 2 seed. They play No. 7 Walnut Grove in the quarterfinals at 1:30 p.m. today, with the winner moving on to face either No. 3 Johnson or No. 6 Cedar Shoals in the semifinals at 5 p.m.
The girls championship will be 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the boys final immediately following at 5:30 p.m.
In the Class 3A, the defending Region 7-3A champion North Hall girls (12-3) begin their quest for securing a top playoff seeding when they face the winner of Dawson County/Fannin County in the semifinal at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. For the boys, the No. 3 seeded Trojans (7-9) will have some hurdles to overcome in order to capture their first region crown since going back-to-back in 2014-15. Longtime coach Bob Woodworth, who leads both North Hall programs, hinted at a competitive region bracket with defending champion Greater Atlanta Christian and Fannin County — boasting a solid singles tandem — in the tournament pool.
In the Class 6A, Both Gainesville squads will be sporting the No. 1 tournament seeding and opens in the semifinals after a first-round bye. The Lady Red Elephants look to defend its 8-6A title in a six-team pool with a semifinal match at 1 p.m. today beside their male counterparts. The Lady Red Elephants, who won five region championships under Kellie Smith in the previous seven seasons, dominated toward No. 1 seed under the watch of first-year coach Kendall Gruhn in 2018.
Meanwhile, the boys program (8-3, 5-0 Region 8-6A) clinched the top tournament seed March 27 behind a gritty singles performance by Ben Burns at No. 3 singles in a 3-2 win over Lanier. With both teams deadlocked at two points apiece, Burns was down a set (6-2) and 5-0 before pulling off a stellar come-from-behind victory, taking the final two sets 7-6 (8-6), 6-1 to give the Red Elephants the decisive point in a critical region match.
The Red Elephants await the final of Apalachee/Habersham Central. The Lady Red Elephants will play either Winder-Barrow or Habersham Central in their semifinal match.
Both 8-6A finals will be at 2 p.m. on Wednesday at Longwood Park in Gainesville.