Last year, the Gainesville boys and North Hall girls came within one match of winning the Region 7-AAA tennis title; this year they hope history doesn’t repeat itself.
With competitive teams throughout the region, the Red Elephants and Lady Trojans know that a region title will be hard to come by, and although Gainesville enters the tournament as the favorite, last year’s team-to-beat on the girls’ side finds themselves playing the role of underdog.
“Even though we graduated some people I knew we’d still be good,” North Hall coach Roger Fannon said. “We have a different team this year and I’m not sure if last year’s loss will be a big factor.”
The same can’t be said for Gainesville.
“We’re definitely trying to rebound from the loss to Johnson,” Gainesville coach James Lingenfelter said. “But the No. 1 thing we’re focused on is winning each round of the tournament one by one. We’re doing our best to humble ourselves to win one match at a time.”
That humbling is needed because the Red Elephants (11-2, 10- Region 7-AAA) have been ranked for the majority of the season. They enter today’s opening round ranked No. 6 in the state and winners of their last 10 matches.
“We appreciate the rankings, we keep that in mind,” Lingenfelter said. “But we also know we have to take it one step at a time.”
The Red Elephants can just look to the Lady Trojans for advice on how to deal with the pressure of entering the region tournament as a ranked, and favored team.
In 2008, North Hall’s girls team entered the region tournament 19-0 and ranked in the top five. The Lady Trojans cruised to the region finals with a 4-0 win over Flowery Branch and a 3-0 win over Pickens, but then they faced West Forsyth in the finals and lost 3-2.
The third-ranked Lady Wolverines lost only one player to graduation and are the team to beat entering today’s tournament.
“Everyone’s shooting at West Forsyth,” Fannon said. “We’re not a favorite, but we’re definitely one of the teams that could make it to the final four.”
If the Lady Trojans get their shot at West Forsyth, Fannon knows his team will be ready, especially senior Jessica Butts, who lost in the finals last year against Macy Day.
“She hates losing,” Fannon said of Butts. “If we get to that point where she matches up with that girl again it’ll be a great match.”
Before they get to that point, the Lady Trojans may have to knock off No. 2 Creekview.
“We’re right there with them,” Fannon said of his team’s ability compared to the Lady Grizzlies. “On any given day we can play with them.”
With returning players Butts, Rachel Langman and Cara Reece, the Lady Trojans can rely on experience to carry them through the tournament.
“They’ve been there before and they know what it’s like,” Fannon said.
The same can be said for the boys at Gainesville.
All but two members of last year’s team that lost 3-1 in the region title match are back, and with a senior laden group of players, the Red Elephants know what it takes to win a championship.
“We’re focusing on perfecting the minor things,” Lingenfelter said. “There’s a lot of good teams in this region and it’s going to be a tough fight (today) and Friday.”
It may be a difficult fight, but the Red Elephants have a lot going for them in their corner. Led by the doubles teams of Louis Hokayem/Corey McDonald and Robbie Bilbrough/Drew Denning, Gainesville rolled through the region schedule unbeaten, but the team never had to play Creekview, the tenth ranked team in the state.
“We’re going to get there early and pay attention to the other side of the region,” Lingenfelter said. “We’re focused on what’s on the other side.”
That type of focus could lead Gainesville to its first region title since it won back-to-back championships in 2005 and 2006.
“That’s the thing about tournaments,” Lingenfelter said. “You have to keep focused on every match or you go home.”