The Gainesville High girls tennis team had its playoff journey abruptly end Wednesday with a 3-2 first-round loss to Johns Creek in Gainesville. But Kendall Gruhn paid little attention to the outcome.
The first-year head coach for the top-seeded Lady Red Elephants was taken back by the overwhelming positivity and sportsmanship exhibited by her starting seven on the courts of Longwood Park throughout this Class 6A tourney match.
“Couldn’t be prouder,” said Gruhn, caught with emotion after her Gainesville program, despite another tough opening-round draw in Class 6A tournament, put up a fight against the No. 4 seed Gladiators.
“You know, they did exactly what I asked them to do, and they left it all on the court,” Gruhn said.
Johns Creek moves on to face the winner of No. 3 Alexander-No. 2 Harrison next week (time to be determined).
It was a playoff opener Gruhn knew was going to be trying for the Region 8-6A champions. The visiting Gladiators, harboring state-ranked players and nestled in a hot spot for metro-Atlanta tennis, finished fourth in the Region 7 behind Northview, which downed reigning Class 6A champion Cambridge in the Region 7 final last week for the top playoff seed, and No. 3 seed Centennial — who advanced to the second round earlier in the week.
Yet, the Lady Red Elephants didn’t back down after Johns Creek quickly captured the first point at No. 1 singles, as freshman Carson Tanguilig recorded a straight-set — 6-0, 6-0 — sweep of Gainesville senior Ali Waggoner in under an hour. Gruhn’s No. 2 doubles team of Savannah Brown and Hannah Wagner fell in their match (6-0, 6-0) minutes later, though, the on-court morale never seemed higher.
“They didn’t win a game, but that was the best they’ve ever played (this season), and they were having fun doing it,” Gruhn said.
Senior Madi Kiser was another to show fight, rattling off a few hard-hit winners in attempts to prolong her final No. 2 singles match against Johns Creek senior Shelly Ray (Presbyterian College signee), who still went on to win 6-0, 6-0 and clinch the match for the Gladiators.
But play continued on as Gainesville’s Grace O’Keefe was not far from the finish line on the far court.
O’Keeffe a human backboard at No. 3 singles, was the first victor for Gainesville after fending off a mini comeback by Alex Morgan in the opening set, pulling away for a 6-4, 6-2 triumph. It came at a good time as Gruhn’s No. 1 senior/freshman combo of Paige Patterson and Hannah Williams rallied from a 4-5 deficit to take a first-set tiebreak (8-6) against Sophia Ann/Alisha Rao of Johns Creek. Patterson and Williams had just begun their second set when O’Keefe won her match, and the Gainesville pair won their match by forfeit.
The Lady Red Elephants now must turn the page after securing back-to-back region titles and a pair of No. 1 playoff seeds.
“We dominated the region, and that’s because of their hard work and effort all season,” the Lady Red Elephants coach said.
Gruhn continued to fight back tears with the mention of her four departing seniors after the match. It included senior alternate Grace Brown, who Gruhn says ‘epitomizes what a senior role model should be’ as an uplifting presence for her teammates.
“Losing these seniors are going to hurt, there’s no doubt about that,” said Gruhn, now in her fourth year with the program overall.
Optimism is also there in the rebuild, as Gruhn keeps her No. 2 doubles tandem, along with the expectation this current freshmen class will set a higher standard for 2019.
“This team set the precedent for playing and committing in the offseason,” she said. “It’s gonna take that again to keep this program as solid as it has been the last couple of years.”
With things winding down for the afternoon, Patterson interrupted her coach to ask if she should offer to snap a team photo for Johns Creek down the hill — just one last act of hospitality. Gruhn immediately gave her senior the go-ahead.
“And then you got kids like that,” Gruhn said with a smile. “How lucky am I to coach these girls?”