CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. - The Gordon Lee girls consider themselves a tennis version of the "Bad News Bears," but they are hoping to have a better ending this morning than their movie counterparts.
The Lady Trojans have advanced to the Georgia Class A state championship match for the first time in the program's history. They will face Irwin County, who defeated them 3-1 in the state semifinals last year, at 9 a.m. at Clayton County International Park in Jonesboro.
Gordon Lee (13-2) earned that right with a hard-fought 3-2 win over Telfair County in the state semifinals Tuesday. It was such a mentally grueling match that coach David Eason didn't get a chance to enjoy the win until Wednesday, when he rewarded the girls with a light practice.
"It was a tough, tough match," Eason said Wednesday. "We're all obviously excited about the chance to play Saturday. This is a good group of girls and I'm happy for them."
The "Bad News Bears" reference comes from the makeup of the team. The Lady Trojans have five seniors, a junior and a sophomore, but only senior Madison Hilley focuses solely on tennis, as other members have ties to Gordon Lee's competitive softball and basketball teams.
"They're a really good group of girls, and I'm happy for them," Eason said. "We had some good teams years back where the girls only played tennis. Most of these girls are seniors, but they've only played the last two years because they were on junior varsity.
"We're not too different than most of the other public schools that benefited from the [Class A] public/private split in that you have smaller schools where kids play two and three sports just to have enough for a team, but we're a little more of an unknown before the split because we were usually the only public school that would make the playoffs in the North, so South Georgia teams didn't know about us.
"The split has made it a lot more fair, because we get the chance to play against the same kind of kids that everybody else has."
Irwin County returned its entire lineup from last season's state runner-up squad, but Eason feels making some tweaks in his lineup has the Lady Trojans better prepared. Those start with Hilley, the team's leader.
"I've always wanted to go to a state championship," Hilley said. "We're going to have to focus on the basics; I'm going to have to remember everything I've been taught over the past 13 years and make sure I support my team.
"We have to go in with a positive attitude, because it's going to take everything we've learned in practice. We're a goofy team, but we all want to win this and we have to be positive and motivated to do our very best."
The Lady Trojans will lose seniors Hilley, Katherine Chambers, Sara Holcomb, Bree Sallee and Tori McElhaney, as well as international transfer Jane Reddingius, so they are definitely trying to go out on a winning note.
"These seniors have gotten so close that it would mean so much to go out a winner," Hilley said. "It would be great to have worked all of these years and finally have something to show for it."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.