For a coach who considers herself to be a bit superstitious, Ginger Jackson could at least agree taking a quick match in three lines is a good way to kickstart a region tournament.
Her top-seeded Flowery Branch tennis team did just that Tuesday in a second-round match at Buford City Park, swiftly defeating Loganville 3-0 to clinch a spot in the Region 8-AAAAA finals for the first time under the new classification.
Meanwhile, the second-seeded Flowery Branch boys team coasted to its fourth-straight region championship appearance following wins over Cedar Shoals (3-0) and Johnson (4-1). Both teams will play Buford for the championship and top playoff seeding at 5:30 p.m. today in Buford.
After dropping only two games in the opening set, sophomore Annabelle Thomas broke back at 2-1 in the second set and rolled to a win in the No. 1 singles slot for the Lady Falcons (6-2, 6-1). Junior Olivia Correa (6-1, 6-0) cruised in her match at No. 2 singles, while the senior-laden No. 1 doubles pair of Peyton Brick/Kylie McGuire won 6-2, 6-0.
Brenna Martin/Marissa Barrett won at No. 2 doubles (6-2, 6-1).
The Lady Wolves defeated Cedar Shoals before taking three-of-five lines against Clarke Central in the next round to advance to the championship against Flowery Branch (15-3, 6-0 region).
Considering their previous encounter during the regular season, it’s a final both coaches are eager to jump into.
Flowery Branch won the first meeting 4-1, though it did so in thrilling fashion while combatting frigid 30-degree temperatures at the same venue March 15. The Lady Falcons rallied from a set down in both the doubles lines and at No. 3 singles to stun Buford.
“The thing with Buford is you have to play well, you have to play well every point, every game, and just see where the pieces fall,” said Jackson. “It’ll be tough — it’ll be exciting — and it’ll be tough. ...I hope the girls play well.”
Buford tennis coach Sean Gilbert hopes his players can bring that same intensity on the courts in the rematch.
“Again, we’ll have to play one of our best matches of the year,” said Gilbert, who laughed after the subtle reminder he’ll get to wear shorts this time around.
“I don’t think tennis is a game meant to be played in under 40-degree weather. But Flowery Branch found a way to beat us, and we gotta find a way to beat them (today).”
The season itself has been a less favorable one for Gilbert’s team, which has overcome some adversity to get to the region finals. But the same resiliency and veteran leadership needed to hurdle those obstacles revealed themselves in the first two singles lines as the pair battled their own ailments Tuesday.
Senior Bailey McCammon, while harboring fatigue and flu-like symptoms, lost in straight sets (6-1, 6-1) to the region’s top singles contender in senior Caroline Caldwell. And Kenzie Walters — despite a nagging toe injury — at No. 2 singles gave the team its first point with a 6-3, 6-1 win on the next court over.
“They wanted to be out there, and that meant so much to our team, and me,” added Gilbert. “I’m hoping they can recover and play their best tennis.”
As the Lady Wolves’ senior staples at No. 1 doubles, Tamia Wayne/Emma Place clinched the semifinal match with a straight-set win (6-2, 6-3). Gabby Benson/Sydney Grothe won at No. 2 doubles, 6-2, 6-3, as well.
“We always want to play our best in that kind of situation, but we also know that there’s a lot more to play for,” Gilbert said. “The arrow is pointed in the right direction for our girls, and I’m proud of them.”
FLOWERY BRANCH BOYS POWER THROUGH: During a one-hour layover in Tuesday’s Region 8-AAAAA tournament, second-year coach Stacey Smallwood identified consistency as being the key piece for the team’s performance all year long.
The Falcons maintained that premise the following round against Johnson.
Even without the talents of lone senior Tucker Smallwood, who was sidelined with a sprained ankle Tuesday, a freshmen-stacked flock of Falcons under their second-year coach combined to drop just three games en route to a 4-1 win in the semifinals of the region tournament.
Stacey Smallwood’s lineup comprised of four freshmen and two juniors dismissed any notion of postseason jitters to solidify a rematch with rival Buford in the final.
Stacey Smallwood said her team’s desire to win, coupled with strong camaraderie, is beginning to reveal itself in the pivotal moments.
“They are all getting along and gelling at the right time,” she said. “They want to win, and I think that hunger, that desire, is gonna hopefully carry them. I think the kids are ready to play, it’s what they’ve been practicing and playing for all season.”
Freshman Drayton Matus, the team’s strong point at No. 1 singles, bageled Johnson’s Xander Corso (6-0, 6-0), while fellow ninth-grader Gunnar Hetzel (in place of Tucker Smallwood) won convincingly at No. 2 singles (6-1, 6-0) over David Fields.
Both doubles lines took it in straight-set fashion, starting with John Hollis and Brady McVey in the top spot (6-0, 6-0), followed by Dominick Garcia and Brody Millwood (6-1, 6-1).
With son Tucker expected back at No. 2 singles, Stacey Smallwood is optimistic for a different outcome in the Falcons’ second go-around with the Wolves. Flowery Branch lost to Buford 4-1 in their first meeting this season.
“They’ve played really well, and they handled themselves really well,” the coach said. “I just hope they’re ready.”
BUFORD BOYS CRUISE: The outcome was never in doubt as the Wolves captured a 3-0 sweep of Clarke Central to advance to the Region 8-AAAAA championship.
In No. 2 singles, Brady Todd defeated Clarke Central’s Oliver Benson in straight sets (6-0, 6-0). Dalton Counts was up 6-0, 5-2 over Clarke Central’s Daniel Barta in No. 2 singles, while the No. 2 doubles team of Cole Tarleton/Luke Davidson (6-0, 6-3) gave the Wolves their final two points to clinch the match.