John McFall has seen a lot of West Hall tennis teams in his tenure as coach of the Spartans, which dates back to 1988.
In his time at the Oakwood school, he's seen his team in the state championship three times ('92, '93, and '96), and in the state playoffs in each of the last nine seasons.
This year's team, he believes, has the potential to be as good as the '96 Spartans, which he considers to be the best he's ever coached. But his team is young - West Hall's starting lineup includes four sophomores, two juniors and a senior - and it might be next season before this group of Spartans reaches its full potential.
However, based on this season, they're well on their way to making a big splash come the Region 8-AAA
tournament, which West Hall hosts April 13-14.
The Spartans won their first 13 matches before dropping two of three last week to formidable opponents - region foe Gainesville (West Hall beat the Red Elephants in their first meeting) and 6-AA's Buford.
With a win over Oconee County in Watkinsville on Tuesday, the Spartans will be in the driver's seat for a No. 1 seed out of subregion B, as they sit at 9-1 in the league and ahead of Gainesville and the Warriors (both 8-2). Earning the top seed would be no small feat, as 8B-AAA is one of the state's best subregions.
Heading into the week, the Spartans are ranked No. 4 in Class AAA, Oconee is No. 7 and Gainesville is No. 8.
"I knew we'd be good because a lot of these kids work year-round," McFall said. "We did well early in big matches. The Gainesville and Oconee matches were close, and we played with a lot of confidence."
In fact, winning seems to come easy for West Hall. Though the matches were close, they simply weren't losing. Heading into last week, two individual Spartans had yet to even drop a match. As young as the team is, McFall said it may have a little too confident coming into its matches with Gainesville and Buford.
No. 2 singles Max Wilson, a sophomore, agrees with McFall.
"We kind of had a sense of entitlement at 13-0 and being No. 4 in the state," said Wilson, who earned the No. 2 spot before the season after being No. 3 as a freshman. "Like we were unbeatable, untouchable. I think we needed this week going into the final week of the season.
"We needed a sense of reality with the region tournament coming up."
With youth and inexperience, it's never clear how a team accustomed to dominating will react when adversity and losing sets in. How the Spartans responded to losing two of three is what pleased McFall.
"After the Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday matches, I offered to give them Friday off," McFall said. "They didn't want to take the day off. They wanted to be on the court. So they had a great attitude about working, and they enjoy being out there, which always helps."
Said Wilson: "After Buford, we were kind of embarrassed (West Hall lost 5-0). We felt we had a chance against them (because all five matches were close). Losing showed us we still had a lot of work to do. We needed to improve our work ethic and bring more intensity."
Brenden Worth is West Hall's No. 1 singles, a position he's held since his freshman season. The junior considers himself one of the leaders of the young Spartans.
"It was good for us to hit that hump," Worth said. "Now we're hungry heading into the rest of the season with region in two weeks. It's not about last week anymore, we're looking forward."
Coming out of the region tournament as the top seed has been West Hall's goal all season, McFall said. Of course, getting the top seed means an automatic berth in the state playoffs, including at least the first two matches on their home court. Beyond that, McFall hasn't set other goals because he doesn't want his young team to get too far ahead of itself.
Those goals are lofty enough, and once in the playoffs, if they make it there, the Spartans will aim for a feat they haven't accomplished in nine consecutive seasons of making the state playoffs - advancing past the second round.
Based on his past teams - McFall watched the '96 Spartans come within a set of winning the state title against Darlington (they lost 3-2) - McFall believes this team can play at just as high a level as any he's coached.
"I was thinking about that the other day," said McFall when asked how this year's Spartans match up with teams of the past. "The '96 team was senior-laden - three of my top players were seniors. Right now, I've got five reasonably close to each other (class-wise), and they help to push each other. We're probably a year away from playing our best tennis, but I want us to go as deep as we can this season."
Worth believes his team can win big this season, because the Spartans, though young, are still really good.
"I think the youth of our team is a real strong point," Worth said. "And I think it's going to carry the West Hall program for a while. We've got JV kids who have never played before who are working their way into varsity playing time. We're all making each other better.
"I'm excited for this year and next year, because almost everyone is coming back."
Adam Krohn is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimes