On paper, seeing the names of three freshmen in a high school tennis starting lineup could convey a sense of inexperience.
Not for Ginger Jackson’s Flowery Branch High girls program.
Jackson’s “Big Three” — freshmen Alyssa McSpadden, Alicia Quast and Kendalle Quast — has powered the Lady Falcons to a repeat Region 8-5A championship, No. 1 playoff seeding and a state quarterfinal appearance (the program’s third overall) alongside senior staples Olivia Correa and Brenna Martin.
The longtime Flowery Branch coach said youth isn’t necessarily a bad thing in tennis, and that’s evident considering the Lady Falcons are one of four area teams left in the latter stages of the state tennis playoffs.
“It’s a special group of girls,” said Jackson, whose program is on the cusp of a first-ever state semifinal berth.
The Lady Falcons will first need to get through fellow No. 1 seed Union Grove in the quarterfinal match, scheduled for 4 p.m. today in Flowery Branch.
The circumstance to have that many underclassmen compete from the get-go has been a pleasant one for Jackson.
“Sometimes, you get one or two players, but to have three strong players come in as freshmen in this area is ... good,” she said. “Atlanta teams, I think, experience that kind of stuff more. But being in a small area, it’s special to see three strong hitters come in at one time.”
McSpadden and the Quast twins are the three to transfer a high level of tennis as only freshmen. Although all three were singles hopefuls to start, Jackson has seen each take on vital roles in the doubles portion throughout the year.
“Alyssa has been steady,” Jackson said of McSpadden, who also played in a number of singles matches for Flowery Branch in 2018. “She has stepped into a position that she is not as familiar with, and she rose to the occasion. It’s been very fun to watch Alyssa grow into a doubles player, and same goes for the Quast girls.”
While each brings her own strengths to a part of the game that requires solid understanding of one’s partner, having that senior leadership guide them along the way certainly helps, especially looking at Jackson’s No. 1 tandem of McSpadden and four-year staple Martin.
This freshman/senior pair helped seal a first-round playoff victory over Rome with a 6-0, 6-0 win for the team’s third point.
“They have learned to gel, and I think the senior (Martin) wants to win and wants to experience this last run,” Jackson said. “(Alyssa) gets fired up, and wants to compete — all three of my freshmen do.”
Twin sisters Alicia and Kendalle Quast form the other pair, which has also shown its compatibility from inside the lines. They have logged their fair share of accomplishments in both doubles lines, clinching a repeat region title for Flowery Branch from the No. 2 slot with a straight-set victory against Buford on April 11.
“They’re so in-sync,” Jackson said. “ ... You know, when you have a good doubles partner, you feed off one another. They feed off each other as players and as sisters.”
In other moments, the remaining three in Jackson’s lineup have certainly pulled the weight as well: The three singles players of No. 1 Annabelle Thomas, No. 2 unbeaten Correa and No. 3 Olivia Nance.
Jackson still looks to her two seniors to lead by example.
“Olivia knows what we’ve already accomplished — made it to the sweet 16, and now the elite eight — and understands we want to go a bit further,” Jackson said. “She wants to have a big senior season. ... And so does Brenna. ... (Brenna) is as focused as she’s ever been in the last five years. And that’s good for your freshmen too, you know?”
With a win, the Lady Falcons would face the winner of No. 1 seeds Kell and Starr’s Mill at date and time to be determined.
It could put them on a collision course toward a second clash with No. 2 seed Buford — which defeated South Effingham, 3-1, in its quarterfinal match Monday. The Lady Wolves, in their third state semifinal in four seasons, await the winner of reigning state champion Chamblee/No. 1 seed Bainbridge for a match next week at a date to be determined.
On the boys side, third-year coach Stacey Smallwood has seen her No. 2 seed Flowery Branch boys blossom into a program that reached new heights in 2018. The Falcons recorded playoff sweeps in back-to-back weeks en route to a first-ever quarterfinal appearance, and now they face No. 1 seed Statesboro at 2 p.m. Wednesday in Statesboro for a chance to extend this historic run.
Meanwhile, the No. 1 seed Buford boys seek a return to the Class 5A semifinals as they face No. 1 seed Ola today. With a win, the Wolves play the winner of Carrollton and defending state champion Starr’s Mill, which defeated Buford in the semis last season.