After being upset in last year’s Region 7-AAA tennis tournament, the Johnson Knights are entering this year’s tournament with a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
As the No. 1 seed last year, Johnson (13-4, 8-2 Region 7-AAA) lost in the semifinals to eventual region champion West Hall, ending the Knights’ dream of winning a region championship and motivating this year’s team to avenge last year’s loss.
“Ever since last year when we got knocked out we’ve been working on winning a region championship,” Johnson’s No. 1 singles player Seth Hester said. “It will be huge if we win it. It’s our top goal by far.”
Added fellow senior Brandon Sloan: “I think anything less then winning region would be a disappointment, especially seeing how far we’ve come along this year.”
The Knights enter the start of today’s region tournament ranked second in the state in Class AAA, but despite their high ranking, the road to the region title is not an easy one.
Standing in their way are two other ranked teams, third-ranked Gainesville (12-1, 9-1) and eighth-ranked West Hall (11-4, 8-3). Johnson split the season series with both teams, and in doing so earned the No. 2 seed out of the south subregion, which Johnson’s coach Marsha Wilkes believes is a good thing.
“I think we ended up on the good side of the draw,” said Wilkes, whose team will open the tournament with a match against the winner of the Gilmer/East Hall match at 11:30 today.
Johnson’s side of the bracket includes West Forsyth, Flowery Branch, North Hall, Gilmer and East Hall, which means the Knights won’t have to face either West Hall or Gainesville until the region championship on Thursday.
While Wilkes believes that her team will be competitive with either school, if they had their choice, Sloan and Hester would rather see the Red Elephants in the finals.
“We can beat either one, but if I had to chose it’d be Gainesville,” said Hester, who is undefeated in region play this season. “We could easily beat them 4-1.”
“We match up better with Gainesville. Our doubles teams have had a tough time with West Hall’s doubles (Derek Weatherly/Jimmy Kincaid and Kyle Weatherly/Ricky Vital ) and an easier time with Gainesville’s. We’ve also had an easier time with Gainesville’s singles.”
Although Johnson hopes that Gainesville will advance through its bracket and set up a region championship game between two of the top three teams in the state, the Red Elephants are not.
Instead, Gainesville is simply taking it one game at a time, starting with the Red Elephants’ first opponent, the winner of the Lumpkin County/Chestatee match.
“We haven’t played either of those teams yet so we’re just trying to get through (today),” Lingenfelter said. “We’re going to go one step at a time.”
Even the players feel that way.
“We have to play every match as if it were the championship and we can’t go in thinking lightly of any one team,” said Gainesville’s No. 1 singles player James Wassel, who is 11-1 on the year and would play against Hester if Johnson and Gainesville meet in the finals.
“West Hall and Johnson are great teams,” Lingenfelter said. “We’ve got to fight hard in doubles against West Hall and we’ll have our work cut out in singles against Johnson.”
Gainesville’s coach may be aware of what it would take to get past West Hall and Johnson, which the Red Elephants would have to play in back-to-back matches on Thursday barring an upset, but his players are confident that they could beat either team.
“We match up pretty well with both of them,” senior No. 1 doubles player Graham Williams said. “We probably match up better with West Hall but I don’t think we’ll have a problem with Johnson.”
West Hall will need two wins in order to make the matchup with Gainesville happen. The Spartans open the tournament at 11:30 today with a match against Pickens, and if they win, will have to get by White County (11-2, 8-2) at 5:30 p.m. in the second round.
Region 7-AAA’s other top team, North Hall (9-7, 9-1) will open the tournament at 5:30 p.m. today against the winner of the West Forsyth/Flowery Branch match at 11:30 a.m and if the Trojans advance to the second round, they will face Johnson, a team they lost 5-0 to just two weeks ago.
While North Hall’s boys will have a tough road to the region championship, the Lady Trojans enter the region tournament as one of the two favorites to win the title.
Undefeated and ranked in the state all year long, second-ranked North Hall (16-0, 10-0) has won all but three of its matches by a score of 4-1 or better, including 12 shutouts.
The Lady Trojans’ toughest competition lies on the opposite side of the bracket. Top-seed from the south subregion, West Forsyth also enters the tournament undefeated and ranked in the state. The third-ranked Lady Wolverines and Lady Trojans did not face each other this season.