Flowery Branch boys tennis coach Stacey Smallwood knew Monday’s first-round Class AAAAA playoff match against Riverwood would come down to a singles match.
It did just that, as Falcons freshman Gunnar Hetzel’s battle with Ben Shainker in a No. 3 singles match that lasted well after the other four lines had been swiftly decided. Despite Hetzel’s drastic turnaround to create a thrilling, back-and-forth second set, Flowery Branch saw its season end with a 3-2 loss on its home court.
“Other coaches from (Riverwood’s) region had told me a bit about them, so I knew this match would come down to that last singles line,” Smallwood said. “We were confident in our doubles teams, so we were hoping to win just one in singles.”
Hetzel almost provided the decisive win, even after dropping the first set 6-2. With all other matches finished, players and spectators gathered around the No. 3 singles court as he staged a seesaw set with his junior opponent.
“I imagined they weren’t there,” Hetzel said. “I acted like it was just me and (Shainker) out there.”
Though he ultimately lost 7-5, the strategy worked. Hetzel rallied from a 40-30 deficit in the seventh game, winning three straight points to take a 4-3 lead. After Shainker took the next two games, Hetzel didn’t concede a point in the following one as he tied the set at 5-all.
The pair played to a deuce in the next game before Shainker prevailed and used that momentum to close out the set.
Hetzel, who played through a noticeable cough he said impaired his breathing, drew praise from teammates as well as opposing coaches and players for his furious comeback that nearly forced a decisive third set.
“In the first set, I don’t know what I was doing,” Hetzel said. “I just had to calm myself down and keep the ball away from his forehand and play to his backhand. But I’d win two points, then he’d win two. It was tough to hang onto the momentum.”
Flowery Branch (13-5) quickly picked up the two doubles wins Smallwood anticipated, with the teams losing only a combined four games in straight-set victories.
Dominick Garcia/Brody Millwood were the first to end their match, topping Riverwood’s Sam Shir/Slate Fluker 6-0, 6-3 in No. 2 doubles. John Hollis/Brady McVey wrapped up their victory (6-0, 6-1) against Max Seidel/Carter Rozenboom not long after.
Hollis and McVey said communication, ball placement and strong serves allowed them to cruise to the win.
“We felt like they were more used to flat serves with no spin on it,” Hollis said. “Our serves set up a lot of other things for us because they usually returned them with lobs.”
The Falcons’ first two singles lines were less successful.
Freshman Drayton Matus fell to Gaurav Kunwar 6-0, 6-1 in No. 1 singles, while No. 2 singles player Tucker Smallwood suffered a 6-1, 6-1 defeat at the hands of Davis Esslinger.
Still sporting a brace around his sprained left ankle, Tucker Smallwood said he felt 75-80 percent healed from the injury that caused him to miss the opening round of last week’s Region 8-AAAAA tournament and limited him in the championship match loss to Buford.
He was the lone senior on a Flowery Branch team that leaned on five freshmen this season en route to a second-place region finish and a playoff berth.
“We’ve really got a lot of potential for the coming years,” Stacey Smallwood said. “It just depends on how hard they work over the offseason and in their private lessons. They’ve gotten along so well, too, so they’ve been really fun to coach.”
The Raiders (7-6), the No. 3 seed out of Region 6-AAAAA, will face the winner of Statesboro and Woodland-Stockbridge in the second round.