LEESBURG -- After an entire year away from the Southwest Georgia tennis scene, Lee County No. 1 boys singles star Matt Vansant was back in 2010.
And there's nobody who would argue that he was better than ever.
Vansant, The Herald's 2008 Player of the Year for boys tennis who left
Lee County after that season, returned to claim his crown -- quite literally -- this season as the winner of the award for a second time in his young tennis career. Vansant finished a dominating 16-0 in his senior season -- only losing two sets all year -- and signing a scholarship with Division II Georgia Southwestern State University, a program on the rise now that they've got Vansant.
"I was really glad to be back and playing tennis for Lee County again this season," Vansant said. "I really missed it here."
Although, Vansant's journey to reclaim the honor wasn't an easy one.
After an unbeaten sophomore season he craved a tougher challenge than the Southwest Georgia junior tennis scene could offer. So Vansant made a difficult choice -- moving his junior years to Atlanta to enroll in the famed Tennis Academy of the South -- that ultimately made him homesick. He moved in with his aunt, Stephanie Sticker, and began attending Roswell High School in the day, then driving an hour north to play 2-to-3 hours of tennis at the Academy until the sun set each afternoon.
"I was just frustrated with the competition down here and I asked my dad if there was anything we could do, and we found the Academy. So I moved," said Vansant, who is currently the No. 12-ranked tennis player in the 18-and-under division in Georgia. "Don't get me wrong: My game got a lot better from the time I spent there. But I just missed my friends, my teammates -- and most of all, Lee County."
There was only one problem: When Vansant tried to return, the GHSA stepped in, citing a completely understandable rule that doesn't allow players -- in any sport -- to switch high schools midseason and start competing once residency has been established elsewhere.
So in 2009, Vansant was ruled ineligible, and forced to sit out.
And it ate him up.
"I definitely missed playing (high school tennis). I missed the older guys who I'd played with before and who were seniors. And I wanted to be a part of the team with it being their last year," he said. "It was tough."
But when 2010 rolled around, Lee County boys coach Ja Breeden knew he had a lot to look forward to with Vansant's return.
"When Matt was ruled eligible again and we found out he could play, all the kids on the team got so excited," Breeden said. "It was like, 'OK, with Matt back, there's one point we're going to get in every match. All we need to do now is just find away to get two more.' "
That was, at times, tough this season for the Trojans, who finished 3-3 in Region 1-AAAA and 5-9 overall.
But Vansant never got down on his teammates and did whatever he could to help raise their games.
"He was always helping out, coming to the meetings and it really gave the other kids hope," Breeden said.
Added Vansant: "I never tried to be a know-it-all and I hope nobody thought I was, but if I saw someone doing something that I could help with, I would. I didn't always approach people, I would just find ways to do whatever I could to help them and improve our team."
The team rallied around Vansant all season -- especially when he was close to losing his only match of the year.
As Breeden tells it, the turning point in Vansant's year came in the form of his only real true test. That's when the Trojans traveled to Moultrie to play a bigger, Class AAAAA Colquitt County program, which had one of the top players in Southwest Georgia as its No. 1 singles player, Andrew Harvin. Vansant lost the first set and the collective reaction from his teammates was something to the effect of, 'Wait .. what? Matt lost a set?'
Breeden said the Trojans and Lady Trojans soon migrated to their star's court and became engrossed in the match after Vansant lost the first opening set, 6-2. They did whatever they could encourage their star.
And it worked.
"During the break (between sets), I just told him to stay calm and play to his strengths," Breeden recalled. "And the kids really got behind him."
As a result, Vansant not only won the second set by the same margin he lost the first, but then closed out Harvin, 6-2, in the third as well.
"That was definitely the highlight of the season for me," said Vansant, who would go to beat Harvin twice more that season after that first match. "The match, overall, was just a good experience. I had to kind of (dig down deep) and find a way to win. I needed that."
GSW, meanwhile, really needs Vansant. The Hurricanes were a dismal 3-14 last year and 0-9 in the Peach Belt Conference -- losing 12 matches in a row at one point.
So the legitimate question begs: Why pick GSW when there's plenty of other programs chomping at the bit for a guy like Vansant?
"He really missed home when he was away in Atlanta and I think he really wanted to stay close," Breeden said. "Plus, he wants a chance to come in and be the No. 1 guy right away and be the player they can build a program around. And at Georgia Southwestern, he has a great chance to do that."
Vansant, a great student who also was awarded the HOPE Scholarship by GSW, says he wants to major in accounting.
And, of course, if possible one day play on the pro tour.
But for now, he's just excited about being back -- and to be a Hurricane.
"My dream is play on the pro tour, for sure. But I think I'll probably play all four years (at GSW) and then see where my game's at before I decide what to do," he said. "How realistic it is for me to think I could play professionally? I really don't know. If I'm good enough, then I'll give it a shot. If not, I'm OK with real life. I'm looking forward to being an accountant just as much."