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USTA photo / This junior tennis team from Dalton won USTA state titles in both Georgia and Tennessee before going on to win the Southern Section and qualify for the national tournament, which was canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Pictured from left are, front row, Rebecca Pitts, Callie Stanfield, Braelyn Tallent, Katie Rose Stanfield, Lauren Pitts and McLean Murray; back row, coach Tucker Hemphill, Allie Raughton, Brayden Conn, Jacob Johnson, Henry Horne, Jace Sanford, Sam Woodall and coach Garrick Sanford.

Everything's relative. Pressure to win a summertime youth tennis tournament isn't exactly up there with pressure to feed your family or create a vaccine to combat a deadly virus.

Still, within the narrow window of athletics, imagine you're in the last match of the United States Tennis Association's Georgia 18-and-under intermediate championship event, and if you and your mixed doubles partner lose more than two games — not sets, mind you, games — the other team wins the tournament.

Because that's the scoring system the USTA uses in such events, a format that truly makes every game count, that was the scenario facing the Dalton Golf & Country Club mixed doubles duo of McLean Murray and Jace Sanford as they met an Atlanta entry for the team title.

To make the situation even more problematic, Murray and Sanford are callow 15-year-olds rather than the seasoned 17- and 18-year-olds you might hope to find in that spot.

Said Murray, her truthfulness refreshing: "I'll be honest, I didn't have much hope for us."

Added Sanford, whose older brother Garrick is DGCC's director of tennis: "I just tried not to think about it."

Whatever their mental approach, they shockingly won the first set 6-0. Then they won the second 6-1 to hand the program its first USTA Georgia state title.

Finally, a week after that, as if the Dalton program's story wasn't already unbelievable, for the first time it won the Southern Section's junior team championship. That tournament pits the winners from nine states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee — against each other.

"We've won the Tennessee state title three times in a row," said Garrick, who is 15 years older than Jace. "But we'd never been able to win the Georgia state before. There are just so many good teams from the Atlanta area."

But this time the team went as far as possible, because COVID-19 canceled the national tourney they qualified for by winning the sectional.

"It was awesome, but it was also bittersweet," Garrick said. "I've worked with some of these kids for 11 years. We had several seniors on this team, so I'll never get to coach them again. This was their last chance. I had tears in my eyes when it ended."

It will also be the last chance for Murray and the younger Sanford, whose skills will advance them out of the intermediate level. Murray is taking her fast-rising talents to the prestigious IMG Academy in Florida. Sanford will play for Chattanooga's Baylor School after attending Murray County High School this past year.

"They were undefeated for me in mixed doubles," Garrick said. "They're both going to have bright futures in this sport moving forward."

There were 12 players in all who traveled to Berry College in Rome to win the sectional. Murray and the younger Sanford were joined by exiting seniors Brayden Conn, Henry Horne and Braelyn Tallent (senior Jayda Wood was injured), rising seniors Jacob Johnson, Rebecca Pitts, Allie Raughton, Callie Stanfield and Sam Woodall, rising junior Katie Rose Stanfield and rising sophomore Lauren Pitts.

Horne, a former multisport star at Chattanooga Christian, agreed with his coach that the sectional title was an amazing end to his many years with DGCC in junior team tennis.

"I've been playing JTT for quite a long time," he said. "Pretty crazy to win it my last year. And what made it best was it was a true team win. It wasn't just one or two people. We all did our part. Just cool to see everybody contribute."

But as much as they all had a hand in it, if Murray and Sanford hadn't won their Georgia mixed doubles final in the most improbable of ways, the sectional crown might never have happened. Instead, having won both the Tennessee and Georgia titles, Garrick Sanford was allowed to pick the state he wanted to represent in the sectional. By picking Georgia, he blocked the dangerous Atlanta team from having another shot at his squad.

So how did Murray and Jace Sanford pull it off?

"I tried not to play too careful," Murray said. "I was pretty loose the entire time."

Added Jace: "The guy we were playing against was a big hitter, but McLean hit it back every time. Our team and our families were really quiet that first set, but when we won 6-0, everybody got into it. Everybody was saying, 'We can do this.'"

And while Murray is a little uncertain about how they won the last point, she has watched a video of the celebration over and over.

"The other girl served, and then Jace drops his racket and starts jumping in the air," she said. "Then we all start hugging. I just kept talking about that moment all the way home."

One suspects all 12 of them, along with their coach, will talk about it for years, if not decades to come.

"We're much more than a team; we're like a family," said Tallent, who will now play tennis for Young Harris College in northeast Georgia. "With so many of us leaving, it was a very tough goodbye. But we couldn't have asked for it to end any other way."

Who could?

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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