FLOWERY BRANCH — All season long, the boys’ side of Region 8-AAA has been a tight race between Gainesville, West Hall and Oconee County. At the region tournament, and with a No. 1 seed in the Class AAA state playoffs on the line, Gainesville emerged from the pack, beating Oconee County 3-0 in the championship on Thursday at Bobby Bailey Tennis Center.
In the semifinals, Oconee County knocked off West Hall 3-1.
On the girls’ side, Oconee County beat Johnson 3-0 for the title.
The Red Elephants, who finished 10-2 in league play during the regular season, were guided by the dominating singles play of No. 1 Ryan Joiner, No. 2 Conner McMorrow and No. 3 Jackson Goble. The threesome combined for a 12-0 record in the tournament, allowing the doubles teams to rest until the state playoffs.
“I knew we had it coming in here because we had all worked on our game significantly over (spring) break,” said Joiner, a senior who finished the season 11-0 in region play. “Everyone played their best tennis of the entire season, and I’m positive of that.”
It was Gainesville’s second region title in two years, and winning this year’s came mainly from time well spent during spring break, Red Elephants coach Barrett Lingenfelter said.
“Hard work prepared us,” said Lingenfelter, who has guided the Red Elephants to the playoffs in each of his four seasons. “We had a lot of guys who did clinic work and different things with their private instructors. They played a lot of tennis throughout the break and didn’t get out of the game that week, so that’s what kept them on fire.”
Added McMorrow, a junior, “We were hitting a ton in practice and it carried over to this tournament.”
Now that the Red Elephants have home court advantage secured through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the focus shifts to advancing past the second round. That’s something no player on the Gainesville team has done.
“I think we can get to the fourth round, actually,” said Goble, a sophomore who finished 10-1 in region play. “I think we have what it takes. We’re a good enough team to grind it out and win every single match and pull through the tough ones and get through the pressure.”
For West Hall, which hosted the tournament, it was a disappointing way to finish. After going 11-1 in the regular season, the Spartans were forced to settle for the No. 3 seed after beating Lumpkin County 3-1 in the consolation finals.
The Indians will enter state as the No. 4 seed.
“We’re very disappointed,” Spartans coach John McFall said. “But we got third place, and we’re in the state tournament, so we’ve got to get over this, move on and see what we can do.”
Oconee County’s girls continued its dominance of region play with its 3-0 win over Johnson. The Lady Warriors have now won 27 of the last 28 region tournaments they’ve played in, and they are gunning for their first state title since 2006.
They have been led all season by the play of No. 1 Victoria Ondo, a senior who is 20-0 on the season, freshman No. 2 Caroline McElhannon (19-1) and No. 1 doubles Caroline Guest and Katie Kane (20-0).
“If we don’t win those three spots, we don’t win,” said Lady Warriors coach Dan Grutter, who is in his 41st season, the last 12 of which have been at Oconee County. “We don’t have the depth to go far (at state), because we’re basically a four (player) team trying to run a seven (player) team race. But nobody is more proud of them than I am. As far as working hard, effort and team unity, this may be the best group I’ve ever had in that accord.”
With the title-game loss, Johnson goes to state as the No. 2 seed. Gainesville beat Lumpkin County 3-0 in the consolation title game, giving the Lady Red Elephants the No. 3 seed and the Lady Indians the No. 4 seed.
The state playoffs begin April 22, with Region 8 playing Region 6 in the opening round.
Follow Adam Krohn at Twitter.com/gtimesakrohn.