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Area tennis teams think big heading into region tournaments

Sydnee Smith went 14-0 this year, and only lost one game during her state title defense.

Sydnee Smith went 14-0 this year, and only lost one game during her state title defense.

CAMILLA -- A repeat -- make that a three-peat -- is firmly on Sydnee Smith's mind.

Smith, the junior Westwood Wonder and reigning Albany Herald Player of the Year for girls tennis, begins her march back for a third consecutive GISA Class A State Championship at No. 1 singles when the Lady Wildcats host the Region 3-A Tournament today in Camilla.

And although Smith has battled a nagging injury for much of the year and has missed nearly half the season with patella tendonitis, she wasn't letting those bumps and bruises dim her confidence on the eve of her first match.

"I feel good. I've been icing my knee, massaging it, wearing my brace and I just got back from

skiing in Colorado for spring break and I felt fine," Smith said Sunday. "(But as far as a third state title), I can't really think about that stuff too much right now or dwell on it.

"I just have to take it one point, one match at a time."

The Westwood girls team played only eight matches this season, and Smith missed three of those, and was forced to retire in another -- March 19 against Deerfield, after she won the first set, 6-0 -- because of her knee.

Coincidentally, that was the last time before today she's actually played in a match. But Westwood coach Carole Powell isn't concerned about her star making another run.

"We knew region and state were coming up, so after that first set against the girl from Deerfield, I pulled her," Powell said. "But she's been practicing since then and I know from watching her earlier matches that she's playing better than ever."

Smith, who steamrolled her way through state a year ago as a sophomore and won every match 6-0, 6-0 until she got to the finals -- where she won the championship, 6-0, 6-1 -- has only lost four total games all year and is 4-1 overall, with her only loss (on paper, anyway) coming in the match in which she was forced to retire against DWS.

But to get back to state, she first has to win at region. And if she does, it will mark her fourth straight 3-A crown since her eighth-grade year.

"I'm excited (about the challenge)," she said. "I know the two girls I played last year at state from Oak Mountain (one of which I beat in the quarters, and the other in the finals) are both coming back, and everyone improves from year to year. Of course, I feel like I've improved too."

Powell, for one, doesn't see anyone standing in Smith's way of a repeat, especially considering Region 3-A shrunk this year when it lost Terrell Academy, which moved to Class AA -- and now only has two other teams, Crisp Academy and Randolph Southern, standing in Smith's way.

"No, no," Powell said Sunday when asked if she had any doubt -- injuries and all -- whether Smith would repeat and advance onto state. "As long as her knee holds up, she'll be fine. Plus, she has the heart and drive to win three in a row and I know it's something she'd love to do."

Powell hopes her Lady Wildcats can also advance as a team, as well as her boys squad, which is led by one of the school's many multi-sports stars, Jake Kotter. Kotter is 5-2 this season and plays No. 1 singles for the Wildcats, and Powell thinks he has a legit chance to make a lot of noise alongside Smith at both region and state.

"As far as our region goes, he hasn't lost to anyone in it this year," Powell said. "He does a great job for us and I expect big things from him."

Regardless of how both teams do, Kotter, Smith and any of their Westwood teammates can advance to the GISA Individual State Championships by finishing in the Top 4 of today's region tourney, then travel to Macon on April 19. But because GISA splits its championships into two separate events -- state individuals and team competition -- there's the added possibility the Wildcats and Lady Wildcats will also reach the GISA Team State Championships, which will be held in Augusta on April 27. But only one team from each region advances, meaning the Wildcats and Lady Wildcats have to accumulate enough points today to best Crisp and Randolph.

"I hope we make it to both," Smith said. "I like our chances."

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RED-HOT DEERFIELD TEAMS ENTER REGION 3-AAA TOURNAMENT ON A MISSION:

It's been more than a decade since the Deerfield boys tennis program was able to hang a state championship banner in its gym.

But longtime coach Meredith Gruhl said Sunday she hopes that drought is about to end.

"It's tough to say (if they have what it takes) because you just don't know until you get out of region," said Gruhl, whose boys team has had one of the best seasons in school history, posting a 12-1 record and avenging its only loss to Tiftarea last week as it heads into the start of today's Region 3-AAA Tournament at ABAC. "If you don't win region, you can't go to state, so first things first."

Gruhl, who has been both the boys and girls tennis coach since 1987, last saw her boys program win a team state title in the 1990s when the Knights went back-to-back. Before that, of course, most remember the heyday in the late '80s and early '90s of Paul Stevens and Chip James, the former No. 1 and 2 players in Georgia who were also both ranked in the Top 10 nationally among juniors in the age group.

"We've had some great teams come through here, that's for sure. It's just been a while for the boys," said Gruhl, whose girls program has won six straight individual No. 1 doubles titles -- among others -- as well as three team state crowns since 2005. "It kind of goes back and forth between the girls and boys for us it seems."

To reclaim that glory, the Knights will need for their three most consistent stars to keep playing lights out: Beau Sinyard (No. 1 singles) and the No. 1 doubles duo of Robert Newsome and Reid Wright.

Sinyard, a senior, is 10-3 on the season and Wright and Newsome -- who didn't start the year playing together, but were later paired up after that March 24 loss to Tiftarea in an effort to strengthen the doubles tandems as a whole -- haven't lost a match since they started playing together.

"Making that move really made our doubles much, much stronger, especially at No. 2," said Gruhl, who took former No. 1 doubles player Nasser Risvi and moved him to No. 2, and plucked Wright from No. 2 singles and paired him with Newsome. "It's really worked out great and has given us better balance."

For the girls, the onus to lead the Lady Knights doesn't fall on one player -- or even two or three -- said Gruh, who added that "there's not a lot of division from player to player on the girls -- they're all very solid."

The Lady Knights are 11-2 and have a talented eighth-grader in Joyner Tyson at No. 1 singles, while their most dominant team is the No. 1 doubles duo of Hope Kitchen and Lucy Kelley, who have lost just once all year and enter the region tournament at 12-1. Kitchen was a member of last year's No. 1 doubles team with her sister, Sarah, that helped extend DWS' streak of winning the state individual No. 1 doubles title to six in a row.

The same guidelines apply to Deerfield as Westwood in that the Top 4 individuals will advance to Macon for the state individuals, while only the winning boys and girls teams will reach the team state meet in Augusta.

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GRIMSLEY, LOWE LEAD SGA INTO REGION 3-AA TOURNAMENT:

The SGA boys and girls tennis teams won't open their Region 3-AA Tournaments until Tuesday in Valdosta, which will be preceded by the coaches conferring for a seeding meeting today. But when they finally do hit the courts, all eyes will be on undefeated singles players Billy Grimsley (No. 1) and Adam Lowe (No. 2), both of whom are juniors.

Both enter the region tournament at 5-0 and were the catalysts to giving shot SGA a shot at the regular-season region title, as well as the No. 1 overall seed in the tourney.

"We were down, 2-1, to Brookwood earlier this year and if we lost one more match, we would've been out of the running," said SGA coach Richard LaGuardia, whose Warriors are 4-1 overall and sit in a three-way tie with Brookwood and Citizen's Christian for the top spot that will be decided by a coin flip today. "And when I went over to check on Adam and Billy, both had already lost the first set and were behind in the second. But then they rallied and ended up winning their matches (to stay unbeaten) and give us a shot. That was kind of the highlight of the season so far."

The girls team enters at 2-5 overall and will be paced by the No. 1 doubles duo of Morgan Hilton and Heather Grebel.

"We're young and we're growing on the girls side, so we'll see what happens," LaGuardia said. "But I am hopeful Billy and Adam (will shine) at region and make it to state."