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High school tennis playoffs: North Hall girls on the cusp of uncharted territory with state semifinal match looming
North Hall's girls tennis team celebrates beating West Laurens to advance to the Class 4A state semifinals May 1, 2023 in Gainesville. Photo by Bob Woodworth For The Times

North Hall’s girls tennis team has experienced its share of success during Bob Woodworth’s more than two decades as its head coach.

However, the Lady Trojans, already in the midst of a special season, have a chance to put themselves into uncharted territory when they take on Holy Innocents’ in a Class 4A state semifinal match Thursday at North Hall.

While North Hall (19-4) has made the semifinals a handful of times since Woodworth became head coach in 2000, it has never made the state championship match in its classification.

However, Woodworth sees a couple of things different about this year’s team that could give the Trojans a fighting chance to earn their way into the finals, which will be held May 13.

“One thing that’s been different is there are three very strong singles players,” Woodworth said. “I’ve had some strong singles players before, but there are three (this year). It’s just a very deep singles lineup.

“Another thing is that they seem to be a group that is more willing to learn from the beginning of when I’ve had them, … whether it’s from me or an assistant coach or their private coach. But they’ve absolutely improved, and that is a focus of theirs.”

With regards to the increased depth, No. 1 singles player Ella Kate Canaday has obviously been a mainstay for North Hall this season.

However, No. 2 singles player Gabbie Jenkins has been just as important to the Lady Trojans’ success this season – important enough to have been named as the Region 8-4A Player of the Year.

She agrees with Woodworth’s assessment that the team’s depth has been a big key to the season, and adds that depth has also helped a lot of the team’s younger talent mature throughout the course of the 2023 campaign.

“Last year, we had a really good year (that included a Region 7-3A championship and a berth in the state second round),” said Jenkins, who is 21-2 individually this spring. “(This year), we’ve all matured to a good level. So, we all know what to expect on the court. We’re a very strong team this year (with) a lot of confidence. It’s just a different dynamic, and this year is probably the strongest we’ve had.”

One of the few seniors on the team, Jenkins takes her role on the court role very seriously.

And she is convinced that playing at No. 2 singles has helped put her in the right mindset to be able to fill that role well.

“It’s kind of a relief to be playing at No. 2, and I don’t have as much pressure as No. 1,” Jenkins said. “My sophomore year, I played at No. 1 and there was a lot of pressure there. It’s good to know if something happens during Ella Kate’s match, I’m there and we’re both strong players, and both of us can handle our own. The same with our No. 3 (Lilly Perry). We’re all pretty even players.”

But it’s been more than just the singles group that has come up big for the Lady Trojans throughout the spring.

The No. 1 doubles team of Riley Morgan and Maggie Perry came through in the clutch to clinch both North Hall’s win in the Region 8-4A tournament championship match over North Oconee, as well as the state quarterfinal match against West Laurens on Monday.

The Lady Trojans have also gotten strong play from the combination of Callie Clark and Kate Rogers, who have been seeing a large share of play in a rotation at No. 2 doubles during the playoffs.

“When we were in the region (8-4A) championship against North Oconee, they have a No. 1 singles player who is going to play Division I college tennis, and she’s just unbeatable,” Woodworth said. “So, Ella Kate was beaten. So, in cases like that, we rely on our (No.) 1 doubles team Riley Morgan and Maggie Perry. They clinched that (match) for us.”

Woodworth knows that with the Lady Trojans so close to program history, it will likely take that kind of clutch play throughout the line-up to reach that goal of playing for the title.

To that end, and given that the team has so many young players, he is trying to keep preparation for Thursday’s match against Holy Innocents’ as routine as possible.

“I’m just trying to have them play the way they normally would,” Woodworth said. “They know how good they are. They’re surprised when they roll somebody, … but (they need to) just keep going. We’ll have a regular practice (Wednesday), no big deal, no cakes, no fireworks. Just a regular standard practice and play like we do (Thursday).

“They haven’t reached their peak yet, so I definitely hope they do (Thursday), but they’re young. (The younger players) don’t really understand that what they’re going through is so cool. We’re trying to treat it like every other day, and I think that’s helped them avoid some of those nerves.”

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