After losing a match that ended the season for the Cartersville girls tennis team, a player for the Canes walked off the court without shaking hands with the winning pair from Columbus.
She didn't make it far before head coach Brett Tolbert sent her back to congratulate her opponents, which she did. The initial reaction was borne out of frustration after dropping a hard-fought, sometimes controversial match and sadness over a career-ending defeat.
Tolbert saw it as a teaching moment.
The Blue Devils may have earned a 3-1 victory to advance to the GHSA Class 4A state tournament semifinals, but he knows the Canes can gain just as much from learning how to handle adversity with grace and dignity.
"Life's about character," Tolbert said. "Character to me is what you do when no one is looking. I noticed they had a disagreement at some point. That's part of life. You're going to have disagreements, but it's how you handle that. We're going to win with class, and we're going to lose with class. That's what I've been preaching all season."
Tolbert has also been preaching hard work and perseverance all season, too. Those characteristics were also on display Monday at Dellinger Park.
Senior Emma McCary didn't drop a game in her final match for the Canes on Line 2, while Columbus cruised to victory on Line 1 singles and Line 2 doubles. The other two lines were evenly matched.
Ansley Thompson split her two sets on Line 3 singles. She was set to enter a third set, but the Blue Devils clinched to make the result moot.
After dropping the first set 6-3, Lydia Wiedetz and Jordan Ross put up a great fight in the second set on Line 1 doubles. The pair, who pushed the Canes into the Elite Eight with their win over Blessed Trinity, staved off several match points. Ultimately, an inability to hold serve did in the duo, who fell 7-5 in the second set.
"Columbus played great at the net," Tolbert said. "Doubles is going to be won or lost at the net. Today, they played better at the net than we did. That's the bottom line."
McCary admitted it was hard to watch as the season and her high school career essentially ended right in front of her eyes. But she knows the Canes have nothing to be disappointed about.
"I think watching is harder than playing," McCary said. "I want my team to do just as good as I did this time. I know I can't pull it out without them. I'm always cheering harder for them than I am for myself. ...
"Our senior season was as good as we could have asked for. Of course, we wanted to make it past this — because we never have before — but I think we all are proud of ourselves."
McCary is definitely proud of everything she and her fellow seniors Thompson and Ross have achieved in their time with Cartersville.
"Nobody can say that they've done what we've done in our four years," McCary said. "I think we'll forever be best friends, and we'll forever play tennis together. Obviously, we're going to miss playing for the Canes. But we're never going to lose our friendship, so I'm happy about that."
As always in high school sports, when one class leaves another moves up to replace it. Tolbert said he's excited about the eight-graders who will join his team next season. There's also some really talented sophomores on the team in Ashley Popham and Wiedetz along with some freshmen who gained valuable experience this season.
"This season has definitely helped them out a lot," McCary said of the younger players. "I think that they'll be able to do a great job next season. I think playing with us seniors that have been here for four years and our more seasoned players, being able to hit with us and practice with us every day helps them. I'm excited to see what they'll do. I think they'll do a great job."
Tolbert admits it will be hard, almost impossible to replace the production of his seniors next year. But he hopes another year of play will only help ready his team for another deep run into the postseason.
At the end of the day, Tolbert said he wants his players to grow from Friday's defeat. Both in the way they play and in the way they conduct themselves — on and off the court.
"Let this loss be a sour taste in your mouth," Tolbert said of his postgame message. "Learn from it, live from it and get better next season. Making it to the Elite Eight is special, but we want to be better than the Elite Eight. We want to make the Final Four, and in order to do that we have to work hard. That was my message to them: We want to be a first-class team and make it to the Final Four next year."