Briarwood boys win first state tennis championship

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

MONTGOMERY – History has been made at Briarwood Christian School. After recent dominance by the Briarwood girls’ tennis team, it was the boys turn in 2017 as they brought home the 2017 state championship for the first time in school history behind a core of young and veteran guys.

It didn’t just mark the first ever championship for the Lions boys tennis team, but also ended an eight-year run by perennial tennis powerhouse UMS-Wright out of Mobile, who ended up third in this year’s tournament behind St. Paul’s Episcopal.

Briarwood had been on the cusp of a breakthrough over the last couple of seasons in the 6A classification after a near runner-up finish in 2015 and a sixth place finish in 2016. This year they were finally able to rid the heartbreaking endings with a storybook finish that was quite unbelievable.

“It was just such a special moment seeing them all sprint on the court to celebrate with each other,” head coach Jeremy Mears said.

It didn’t come with ease as Alex Felts and Tyler Gurrea were forced to win a 3rd court doubles championship to bring home the coveted team prize and it was intense.

After falling 2-6 in the first set, the talented duo battled back to win the second set 6-2 before a thrilling third set determined the outcome.

“Our eighth grader (Felts) hit some incredible shots, it was almost as if he hit three game-winning dunks in basketball,” Mears said. “He had a down the line winner that made all of our jaws drop. He and his teammate (Gurrea) hit some incredible shots and we just kept saying ‘whoa, where is this coming from?’”

All of those remarkable shots led to an even more excited Briarwood team and fan base as Felts and Gurrea went on to win the third set 7-5 to take the match and their first state championship ever. When Mears saw both the boys and girls teams running onto the court to celebrate with the unbelievable win, he declared that as the most memorable and special moment of the entire season.

“That was just special man,” Mears said. “To see them all celebrate with each other and for our girls team to join in, that was great because we have both pulled for each other all year and are one big team.”

Luke and John Wolf also brought home a doubles state championship to help Briarwood in the overall team classification. The remarkable thing about those two brothers is that Luke is an eighth grader and John is a ninth grader.

“They had to sit out for a year after transferring over last year,” Mears said. “The remarkable thing is that they took over as our No. 1 and No. 2 court guys.”

After losing two guys to graduation a year ago, the Lions couldn’t have asked for a better replacement as those two stepped up and helped lead Briarwood to an unbelievable state championship run. With everybody else returning to their familiar spots, this team was already poised for this moment before the season even started.

In addition to the two doubles championships, John Wolfe and Felts both captured individual championships. Wolfe won the No. 2 court singles title 6-0, 6-1, while Felts grabbed the No. 5 court singles title 7-5, 6-4 No. 5 singles. The unreal aspect is that Felts is also an eighth grader meaning all of the championships came from three guys in ninth grade or lower.

While this team was poised for a run at the state championship to start the season, their trek didn’t come without some adversity. In an early season match with Vestavia on March 8, Briarwood held a 4-3 lead going into the last two doubles matches before falling in heartbreaking fashion 5-4 to hand them their first and only loss of the regular season.

“Two kids were up on two different courts with a 4-3 lead, but didn’t end up finishing,” Mears said. “I think that loss was one of those things that kept us hungry so we just kept digging and fighting.”

Those two kids were two seniors in Christian Ragsdale and Bennett Davis, but Mears went on to say from that moment forward they played outstanding.

“After that tough loss, those two kids were awesome,” Mears said. “They were just so focused and really embraced their leadership roles on the team for the remainder of the season. I think it ended up being what we needed to kind of get us over the hump.”

It was a win in the Weinacker tournament that really showed this team they could compete against anybody in the state as they topped several of the best teams in Alabama.

The remainder of the way, the Lions faced a tough regular season schedule that included teams like state champions Mountain Brook and Altamont, as well as second place finisher McGill Toolen and 7A powerhouses Spain Park and Vestavia, which really set the tone for this team and poised them for the spotlight moment in the state championship.

“Our difficult schedule certainly helped prepare us for what we saw down in Mobile,” Mears said. “We weren’t surprised by anything that was thrown our way because we had been in so many pressure packed moments against good opponents the entire season.”

While the state championship was special, Mears said it was something else that made this year one of the most memorable for him as a coach.

“This year’s team legitimately liked one another and pulled for one another throughout the year,” he said. “We’ve had some awesome close-knit team, but this one will go down as a special one because of their level of buy in and care. We had kids that were genuinely upset when their teammate last. That’s something that will stick with me for a while.”

As for the future of this Briarwood team, they will have more confidence than ever during the 2018 season. The Lions will only lose two seniors and bring back both Wolfe brothers, who will still be extremely young, Felts and will add two guys that sat out this year, an eighth-grade transfer from Spain Park in Connor Coleman and Parker Radberry who will have one year of eligibility and could possibly be their best player next year. Couple those guys with an up and coming sixth grader that will be in a lineup and this team is poised for more success in the very near future.