by Melissa Blankenship
Coach Brad Sanders has been setting trends for years. 19 region wins for boys tennis, 11 region wins for girls tennis, and so many trips to the final four that he has lost count. His best guess is more than 20. His legacy stretches over 26 years. The excellence of his program has lifted tennis across the southern part of the state as rivals have sought to beat the power house that is Bleckley tennis. Even Coach’s ever present floppy hat has become the trend for fans, coaches, and rivals alike.
This week the trend continued. The Bleckley county girls defeated Davidson Fine Arts in the elite eight to advance to the final four against a strong Berrien County team. The two teams met in Thomasville on May 2 to battle for a place in the state championship. Bleckley No. 1 singles, Abbey Sims, took out her opponent with an easy 6-0, 6-0 victory. The No. 1 doubles team of Jordan Williams and Regan Cole also handily defeated their opponents 6-1, 6-4. This 2 match advantage spurred No. 2 singles, Hanna Dykes, and No. 3 singles, Kate Sanders, to fight for 4-3 second set leads, but it was the no. 2 doubles who reached the finish line first. Jordan Barker and Caroline Thrower got off to a rocky start but managed to win the first set, and cheered on by a raucous Bleckley crowd, closed the tournament with a 7-6, 6-3 victory over Berrien. (Back: Jordan Williams, Bailey Odom, Flip Basby, Brad Sanders, Daroline Thrower, Emily Sanders, and Landa Cominy. Front: Hanna Dykes, Regan Cole, Kate Sanders, Abbey Sims, Jordan Barker.)
The Bleckley County Boys moved to the final four after defeating Screven County in the elite eight. Their final four opponent, Thomasville, had a phalanx of singles players waiting to do battle with the boys. No. 1 singles, Harsh Patel, fell to Thomasville’s no.1 who recently signed to play tennis at Lagrange College. No. 2 singles, Blake Bohannon, fought hard, but fell to the ranked no. 2 player from Thomasville. Bleckley doubles quickly evened the match with two masterful wins. No. 1 doubles, Will Collins and Dayton Cannon, easily defeated their opponents 6-0, 6-0. No. 2 doubles, Austin Bland and Conner Floyd, had no problems with their opponents either and won 6-2, 6-2. (Back: Brad Sanders, Melissa Barker, Will Collins, Dayton Cannon, Conner, Floyd, Parker Arnold, Flip Basby Front: Noah Paradis, Harsh Patel, Blake Bohannon, Bronson Sanders, Austin Bland.)
The main event, however, was a three hour marathon match between no. 3 singles Bronson Sanders and his opponent. Bronson came from behind to take the first set 7-5 but quickly lost the first three games of the second set. Then, at a score of 2-5, Bronson settled into the fight and battled back to have a 40-love lead at 6-5. Unfortunately the tide turned, and he lost the second set 6-7 in a tie break. At this point in a stressful match, Coach Sanders has been known to pace and sometimes even throw his famous hat. Who could blame him with victory that close, and his last chance seeming to slip through his fingers.
But there was no gnashing of teeth or throwing of hats on this day. During the 10 minute interlude between the second and third sets, Coach Sanders, Coach Basby, and Bronson sat calmly facing the crowd who alternately cheered and jeered for the entire three hours of the match (see photo to the right). Something in that calm gave Bronson an edge in the third set. He steam rolled over his shocked opponent to close out the match with a 7-5, 6-7, 6-4 victory.
Years of coming so close to the state championship and being denied have come to a cathartic end. Finally, Bleckley tennis will take the courts at the state championship, and as these players take the court, they will not take the court alone. All the players who came before, who fought and lost, and got back up to fight again will be with them. The hours on court, the miles traveled, the matches won and lost over 2 decades, and a coach who has tirelessly poured into his players and nurtured the dream of a state championship – all of these things have created the winning spirit of Bleckley County Tennis that brought these players and their coach to this moment.
Finally, on his birthday, Coach Sanders has his dream: a chance at the State Title. They will play in the finals Saturday May 6, at 10:15 am. The matches will take place at Clayton County International Park Tennis Center. The girls will face the always tough Screven County. The boys will play Model. All four teams were no. 1 in their regions. It should be a show down, and win or lose, Bleckley tennis will rise to fight again.