FLOWERY BRANCH — Nine months pregnant and expecting any day, Gainesville girls tennis coach Kellie Smith stood and watched as the Lady Red Elephants presented her with an early baby present — a second straight region championship.
The Gainesville girls defeated rival Flowery Branch 3-1 to claim the Region 8-AAAAA championship on Thursday, securing a No. 1 seed for next week’s state tournament in the process.
“It’s great. I’m pregnant and I’m due any day, so my angle for them was for us to be first so we could play at home,” Smith said. “So they did it for me. It’s amazing. They’ve worked hard and they definitely deserve it.”
Flowery Branch’s boys also clinched a second straight Region 8-AAAAA title on Thursday with a commanding 3-0 win over the Red Elephants in the boys final.
The championship matches capped off the two-day tournament played at Flowery Branch High. Both Flowery Branch and Gainesville teams cruised through the first day of the tournament on Wednesday, as the Gainesville boys were the lone team out of the four to drop a single point prior to the finals.
It was clear Thursday that a winning mindset carried over into the championship matches for the Flowery Branch boys.
“Our team is really confident,” Flowery Branch coach Todd Vokal said. “We have a bunch of confident boys right now.
“(Wednesday), the boys played really well and I could see the focus in their eyes and in their game. And today, going into it, I could completely tell that they were ready. And Gainesville brings the best out of us every year.”
The Lady Red Elephants received wins from No. 2 and 3 singles along with No. 1 doubles to overcome an early 1-0 deficit.
Flowery Branch started the match with a win in No. 1 singles, when junior Nicole Morris defeated Georgia Summer in straight sets, 6-3, 6-0. At the time of Morris’ win, Flowery Branch was trailing by a set in every other match, but seemed to be gaining momentum in each of the second sets. That momentum quickly subsided and Gainesville recovered to win three straight matches to secure the title.
Brinkley Franklin beat Flowery Branch’s Madison Smith 6-3, 6-3 in No. 3 singles before the No. 1 doubles pair of Morgan Mercer and Suzanne Smith rallied in back-to-back sets from several games down to claim a 7-6 (7-4), 6-4 victory.
“They knew what to experience and they know how much tougher the competition is when you get up in state,” Smith said.
The championship-clinching point for Gainesville came in No. 2 singles play, when Katherine Wright defeated Flowery Branch’s Durden Smith 7-5, 6-4.
Wright, who lost a match to Smith when the two teams met during the regular season — a match Flowery Branch won 3-2 — trailed early in the second set, 1-0, but bounced back to win four of the next five games to pull away. As the match grew close to an end, Wright had a strong feeling she could be the deciding point for Gainesville.
“I had to go through that last year, too,” Wright said. “I was in the same position, but this time my serve was a lot better and I think that won it for me.
“Since two doubles was still on, I was a little worried since usually they get off (the court) first. I was worried because they were still on, and I knew Georgia lost and Brinkley won, and I heard a lot of cheering, so I was guessing one doubles had won. I really wanted that one.”
In the boys’ matches, Flowery Branch No. 1 player Beau Millwood, a junior, cruised through his match against Gainesville’s Graham McKinnon, winning 6-1, 6-3.
The victory gave the Falcons the momentum they needed, as Flowery Branch was able to secure wins in No. 2 doubles and No. 3 singles to secure the region championship.
Upon clinching the championship, the final two matches — No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles — were stopped. Flowery Branch also led in both of those matches.
“This year’s team mentality is completely different from last year’s mentality,” Vokal said. “It started a little rough with them trying to find themselves (this year). And from the second half of the season on, they’ve molded together, found themselves and found their role on the team.
“For them to take it to this point, I feel really good about where we can go from here.”
The No. 2 doubles pair of Quang Cao and Austin Higgs beat Gainesville’s Trevor Munn and Charles Calkins 6-1, 6-4 to put Flowery Branch ahead 2-0.
Knowing his team needed only one more match to claim the title, No. 3 singles Phillip Correa finished off opponent Davis Brown in 6-4, 6-1 fashion.
“Man it means everything,” Millwood said. “It’s so close between us and Gainesville, it’s crazy. Every sport is a rival here with Gainesville.”
Both Gainesville and Flowery Branch teams will host first-round state playoff matches next week. The date and time of each has yet to be determined. Region 8 is aligned to meet Region 5 in the first round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs.