The deepest the Woodland boys tennis team has ever made it in the state playoffs is the Sweet 16. Wildcats coach Beth Heath believes this year’s squad was destined to take it one step further — at least.
Of course, Heath’s prediction of her boys team putting together the most successful season in program history, which could have also very easily included a Region 7-AAAAA championship, never had the chance to come true after the COVID-19 outbreak forced the remainder of the season to be canceled.
“It hit our team hard,” Heath said, noting that five of her nine boys were seniors. “… We were looking pretty strong at coming in first, second or third in our region. We would have definitely been in the top three. It just breaks my heart for those boys.”
While a lot of things would have had to go right for Woodland to reach the state quarterfinals, the Wildcats certainly had the talent to make the push.
Standouts Bryce VanOrder and Connor Gunnell — who will continue their careers at Piedmont and Shorter, respectively — were as close to sure things on lines 1 and 2 as you’ll find in the area. The pair of seniors were key parts of the Woodland 2018 team that made the aforementioned Sweet 16 appearance following a first-round win over Clarke Central.
This season, the Wildcats’ lone region loss had come to Carrollton in a 3-2 thriller. It was also quite possibly a preview of the region championship match. However, Heath will never know if her team would have been able to avenge the narrow defeat en route to a deep playoff run after missing out on state last spring.
“Those boys worked so hard for me, and they spent their summers working,” Heath said. “They came back, and we were a lot stronger for this season. We finally got our combination of doubles teams going that we needed.
“Seven matches into the season, and we can’t finish it.”
With VanOrder, Gunnell, Keagan Gallagher, Adam Pirkle and Garrett Wesley graduating, the cupboard will be pretty bare next season.
“It’s definitely going to be starting from scratch next year with the boys team,” Heath said. “We’re just going to start all over.”
That being said, Heath won’t be the one to have to restock. After being asked to coach boys and girls the past two seasons (well, one season and some change), Heath will return to only leading the girls team next year. It’s a transition she will be more than happy to undergo.
“I just didn’t feel like I was giving 100% to either team,” Heath said. “I felt a little stretched. I wanted so badly to focus on one or the other. The boys team being so strong this year, I think I was a little guilty of focusing a little more on the boys than the girls. I felt like I was neglecting the girls.”
Unlike the boys team, the girls will return a strong core. They did see four seniors — Kayla Gales, Lauren Morris, Lindy Morris and Becky Wesley — have their final year cut short, but five of the team’s seven lineup regulars should be back.
The crop of rising seniors include Abigail Spaulding, Monterya Morrow and Emma Savage. The first two made up Heath’s Line 2 doubles team, while Savage paired with rising junior Eryn Gentry on Line 1. Savage and Gentry should occupy two of the singles lines moving forward. A freshman, Abby Cates occupied the Line 3 singles spot at times this season.
It should be a solid group that will have a good chance to compete for a playoff spot next year. Woodland had made it to state each of the past three seasons in a nine-team region, but the revamped Region 7-AAAAA looks like it will be even tougher despite having only six schools.
Regardless, Heath will look forward to having a more singular focus next year, along with the prospects of actually having a full season.
“I want to go back to coaching my girls team,” Heath said. “I have some sophomores and juniors who are going to produce for me next year. I know they are. …
“I’m excited for the girls team next year. I think we’re going to do well.”