Friday January 18th, 2019 6:44AM

STATE CHAMPS: Branch boys tennis nets first-ever state title

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
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ROME — It took 17 years, but Flowery Branch finally has its first-ever state title.

The Falcons’ boys tennis team outlasted arch-rival and Region 8-5A foe Buford in a gruelling, and thrilling, 3-2 victory to capture the Class 5A state title Saturday at the Rome Tennis Center.

And for anyone who had “boys tennis” in the initial lottery in 2002 for the school’s first-ever title, you’ll want to claim the ticket. It may be worth just a little bit.

(The boys cross country team owns four state titles but no Falcons team in a championship bracket format had claimed a crown until Saturday.)

“It’s a great feeling to know we will go down in history as the first one,” a frazzled Branch coach, Stacey Smallwood, said. “I don’t know many people way back who thought we would be the first. Just amazing.”

The two teams split the first four finishing matches -- Flowery Branch won at No. 2 singles, Buford answered at No. 2 doubles, the Falcons won at No. 1 doubles, and the Wolves took No. 1 singles to tie it at 2-2.

The title eventually found itself on the rackets of the Falcons’ Jack Thomas and Buford’s Luke Donaldson at No. 3 singles. Donaldson had beaten Thomas, a freshman, twice during the season. Thomas rallied from 4-2 down in the second set to win the final four games and force a deciding third set after Donaldson won the first set 6-3.

Thomas then jumped out to a quick 4-1 lead in the third but Donaldson, playing in his first three-set match of the season, fought off four match points down 5-4 and was serving for the match at 6-5. But Thomas answered back to force a tiebreaker. Thomas raced out to a 4-1 lead, Donaldson pulled back within 5-4, but Thomas won the final two points to seal the match and the title.

The victory for Thomas was his first over Donaldson on the season.

“I just made a strategy before the match and tried to stick to it,” Thomas said. “I tried not to get frustrated with dropping those match points. In the tiebreaker I tried to be a little more aggressive. He’s tough so I knew I had step up. It’s a huge deal to win this.”

The Falcons had to work for everything they got Saturday as the Wolves, who had beaten them twice before, including a 3-2 win in the region tournament, rallied to tie the match at 2-2 when No. 1 singles Brady Todd won the final five games to hold off  Drayton Matus 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. Matus was in control up 3-1 in the final set but appeared to tire down the stretch in the heat partially due to his playing with diabetes.

“It is amazing to see him be able to play at that level and dealing with that. I think the heat played a factor but he played outstanding,” Smallwood said. “That was a tremendous match to watch.”

The key match, however, came at No. 1 doubles. Three of the other four matches followed the same form as the region tournament. The Falcons duo of Brody Millwood and John Hollis, however, were able to flip the two previous outcomes over Buford’s Cameron Deloach and Alex Pruitt on Saturday with a 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 victory.

“That definitely was the key match,” Smallwood said. “(Brody and John) have been our hottest team in the playoffs and when they won that first set I think that got their confidence going even more.”

In the deciding third set, the teams traded four breaks before Millwood closed it out at 40-15.

“I was pretty nervous (at match point) because I knew it would be huge for us. But I just got into the moment and we were able to get the win,” Millwood said. “I felt coming into the match we had a shot as a team but after we got the win (at No. 1 doubles) I definitely felt we could pull it off.”

Buford coach Sean Gilbert also felt the No. 1 doubles turned the tide.

“Cameron and Alex have been outstanding for us all season and I never really have to worry too much about them,” he said. “That was a great match and you have to give Flowery Branch credit for coming in with a chip on their shoulder and playing a great match.”

Nathan Holley grabbed the opening point at No. 2 singles for the Falcons beating Dalton Counts 6-1, 6-0 for a 1-0 Branch lead. Holley, a Georgia Southwestern-signee,  finished the 2018 season without dropping a single set.

Buford evened the match 10 minutes later as the No. 2 doubles teams of Kurt Knudsen and Tren Milton knocked off Gunnar Hetzel and Brady McVey 6-2, 6-2.

Smallwood, despite not playing a single point, looked more worse for the wear than her players. But she was just fine with that.

“That was stressful,” she said of the experience as a whole. “But was it ever worth it. I just feel so good for these kids and how hard they worked. They’ll always be remembered.”

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