A lockdown across the Cartersville City Schools System forced a delayed start to Thursday's Class 4A girls tennis state tournament second-round matchup against Flowery Branch at Dellinger Park.
Thankfully, nothing came of the scary ordeal, allowing the Canes and Falcons to compete for a spot in the quarterfinals. While the situation could have easily thrown off Cartersville's routine, the Canes seemed to come out sharply focused en route to a 3-1 victory.
"I'm highly impressed with them," Cartersville coach Brett Tolbert said of his players. "You go from a lockdown, where you don't know if you're going to play at all, to then having to run over here. Honestly, I think it helped us. The tension was not there. ... They came out loose."
The No.1 seed Canes reeled off first-set wins on four of the five lines to take a commanding lead. None of the sets was closer than 6-3. Third-seeded Flowery Branch, a Class 5A semifinalist in 2018, responded well in the second sets.
After winning the opening set by a 6-1 margin, Line 2's Emily Bush faced a tough challenge in the second set. The freshman kept her composure and went on a nice run to close out a 6-3 win to even the overall matchup, after the Falcons had taken a 1-0 lead with a Line 3 singles victory.
"I had to stay focused, because I was letting go," Bush said. "I had won the first set and was thinking, 'Oh, I'll win the second set.' I knew that I was letting her come back, and she was staying aggressive. I had to tell myself, 'You have to stay aggressive; you have to stay focused; and you have to hit this shot.'"
After Bush had tied the match at 1-apiece, another couple of ninth-graders gave the Canes a 2-1 lead. The Line 2 doubles pairing of Mia Shaw and Mason Cline proved to be the most dominant players on the day.
After a 6-2 win in the first set, the duo closed out their overmatched opponents with a 6-0 victory.
"We knew we wanted to win as soon as possible and do our part for our team," Shaw said. "We wanted to make sure we got the win for our team."
Added Cline, "I think it was just everybody thinking, 'I had to do my part for the team.' If I can get my game, that's all I can control. Then, I can just hope and cheer everybody else on."
Cline didn't have much time to cheer on her fellow Canes. As her and Shaw wrapped up their match, Lydia Wiedetz and Alice Terry were locked in a second-set tiebreaker on Line 1 doubles.
The pair had dominated the first set, easing to a 6-1 win. They struggled mightily out of the gate in the second set and had to play from behind the entire way. Trailing 6-5, Wiedetz and Terry broke the Falcons' serve to force the tiebreaker.
"We had a rough first three games," Wiedetz said. "After that, we kind of got it together. They started playing a lot more aggressively in that set. I think we started stepping up to the plate after the third game. We adjusted to them, realized what they were doing and started playing better."
Tied at 5-all in the tiebreaker, Terry hit a forehand winner to move the Canes one point from a fourth consecutive trip to the quarterfinals. Wiedetz served on match point, and Flowery Branch hit a return into the net to set off a somewhat-muted celebration.
The only downside to Cartersville closing out the match early was that it forced Tolbert to pull Ashley Popham from her Line 1 matchup. The junior won an intense first set by a 6-3 margin and led 4-1 in the second set, when the Canes clinched the win.
Not known for being demonstrative on the court, Popham produced some rare emotion in her battle. Tolbert liked the passion he saw from his top player, and he hopes to see more of it in the quarterfinals, when Cartersville faces either top-seeded Richmond Academy or No. 2 seed Eastside.
"Everybody on the court, all four lines, heard her, when she let the yell out," Tolbert said, referring to Popham. "It picked up the intensity, because they were like, 'Ashley's upset.' ...
"We might have to have a conversation to let out a yell every once in a while just to get people fired up."
Even with Popham's increased intensity, Wiedetz admitted Thursday's victory wasn't as dramatic as last season's Sweet 16 triumph against Blessed Trinity.
For one thing, the Titans have turned into a rival of the Canes over the past few years, whereas the Falcons only joined the classification this past fall. For another, Wiedetz and Jordan Ross' three-set win on Line 1 doubles snapped a 2-2 tie in the thrilling matchup.
Ross was one of three seniors on that team. This year's squad has no 12th-graders, giving the rest of the state a glimpse at just how good Cartersville should be in 2020.
"It's pretty exciting and nice to be able to get back to the same spot we were last year," Wiedetz said. "It shows we were just as strong and as tough as we were last year — which is really nice, since we're not losing any players for next year."
If anything, Thursday's matches proved the Canes should be a tough out for years to come. Three of the five "winners" are freshmen, while Wiedetz is a junior and Terry is a sophomore.
The Line 2 doubles team, in particular, showed Thursday just how far they've come in just a few short months.
"The young freshmen stepped up," Tolbert said. "The pressure wasn't as much today. They're getting used to what it's like to be in big-time competition now."
He added, "They're growing up. They started the year never having played high school tennis. Now all of the sudden, here they are on the big stage and made it to the Elite Eight. I'm proud of their growth."
The display would have been impressive regardless of the circumstances. But given the interruption Thursday's lockdown provided, Cartersville's performance was truly exceptional.
"It pushed us more," Terry said of dealing with the situation. "We had the mindset the whole day that we were ready to play, ready to come out here and win. It just made us more anxious to get out on the courts."