Briarwood makes history, claims 3rd state tennis title in a row

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

MOBILE – At the conclusion of the 2018 AHSAA State Tennis Tournament, the Briarwood boys’ tennis team won its second state championship in a row, but still walked away from the tournament disappointed.

How could a team be disappointed in winning a state championship you ask? Well, the Lions were on the verge of not just winning the Class 5A title, but also sweeping all nine events when the No. 1 singles match was delayed until Monday.

Briarwood had already won all three doubles events and five of the six singles events to lock up the state championship, but Briarwood’s John Wolf went on to lose the championship match on the third day of competition 7-5, 1-6, 6-3, to prevent the Lions from sweeping all nine events.

“Last year we were close to sweeping all of the spots and that’s something we talked about extensively heading into this season and into the state tournament,” Briarwood head tennis coach Jeremy Mears said.

Up a classification to 6A this year following recent success as a private school, the Lions found themselves in a more challenging rout to simply win a state title for the third year in a row much less sweep all nine events.

Briarwood, however, was determined. The team that had the best talent all season and had only lost once during the season to an out-of-state team in a national tournament entered the state tournament on a redemption path to prove the possibility of sweeping every event was real.

Luke Wolf, John Wolf, Connor Coleman, Ethan Carr, Alex Felts and Will Tarter all won individual state championships to start the tournament off in dominant fashion with three doubles matches still left.

In the doubles matches, the teams of Luke Wolf and Coleman, John Wolf and Carr, and Felts and Tarter, all picked up doubles state championships to complete the historic day with a perfect 84 points to claim the state championship.

“It was a lot of fun,” Mears said. “That was our goal from the beginning of the season. We wanted to get the three-peat. And for us to win our third straight and sweep all spots was incredibly special. It’s even more hard to believe as I reflect back on it now.”

It didn’t come without some challenges along the way, however.

The singles matches went by rather smoothly with all but one of the players winning their matches in straight set all the way through the state championship match. That means those athletes didn’t drop a set in at least three consecutive matches and sometimes four.

The only player to drop a set was John Wolf, who was in the final match last year, but this season he got a bit of redemption. After winning the first set of his semifinal match 6-2, he dropped the second set 7-6 in a tiebreaker, but then rebounded in the third set to claim a 6-2 victory before going on to win the state title in straight sets by a final of 6-2, 6-2.

Briarwood also found itself in a similar situation in the doubles matches. While the teams of John Wolf and Carr as well as Luke Wolf and Coleman both swept their matches in straight sets, the Felts-Tarter combo took an impressive comeback as the last match on the court keeping them from sweeping every event.

After winning the opening set 6-1, the duo dropped the second set 6-3 and fell behind 4-0 in the final set as they desperately searched for momentum.

“We had a couple of moments where we got a little bit nervous,” Mears said. “After a couple days of playing we get a little tired and tight. Especially saw that in our doubles matches. Tennis is like basketball in a way, once a team gets momentum, you’re trying to shorten their momentum and get yours going. They got on a role in their doubles and we were searching for a way to find some momentum.”

As the team’s made their final changeover to switch sides of the court, however, something changed.

“I actually texted my wife saying ‘I’m about to give my last pep talk of the year so wish us luck because the sweep may be over,’” Mears said.

Tarter was about to go on serve and during the changeover, he told his coach, “I’m going to go big here.”

Mears looked back at him and responded with “Just block out past points and be aggressive, go big.”

And that’s what he did from the service line, as he and Felts started to win points and not only won their service game three times in a row, but broke the serve of the duo from Northridge three times in a row as well to fittingly pull off six unanswered games for a 6-4 set win to close out the third state championship in a row and finish the swepp.

“That was a pretty cool way for us to seal the deal for the sweep,” Mears said.

Mears said the challenge of this year was the team handling being the hunted instead of the hunter.

“The past couple of weeks, we’ve talked about not having a sense of entitlement,” he said. “Until last year, we were the hunter. Now we are the hunted. Everybody was trying to take what was ours so I told them to be hungry and passionate as they were two years ago when we won this for the first time.

“They responded and their competitive fire really came out. I was wondering what it would be like, but they were fired up and ready to go. Each year brings a different challenge, and this year the challenge was avoiding complacency.”

In what is known as an individualized sport, Mears also pointed to teamwork and their leadership as being key reasons the team pulled off such a difficult accomplishment this season.

“Tennis is an individual sport that we make a team sport, but we preach team from day one,” he said. “We tell them this is something bigger than themselves. Special thing about high school athletics is win or lose we get to go watch our teammates and cheer for them.

“There is no doubt we have guys that could be No. 1s at other schools, but for them to want to just do their best no matter what number they are is special. They’ve always wanted to do what they can to help the team.

That also meant the addition of leadership. While the team relied on its talent during the 2018 championship run, this season two key leaders stepped up to hold everyone accountable—John Wolf and Connor Coleman.

“I want to praise them,” Mears said. “We’ll drill them at practice and they’ll self-impose sanctions if they don’t achieve to a certain level doing their own pushups or line drills at practice for errors. It was a thing of beauty. The coaches looked at each other early in the season and were like ‘We’ve got something special here.’ That was really neat.”

At the end of it all, the team bonded together with one goal in mind—to sweep the state championship and win their third title in a row—and on Tuesday, April 23, they made it happen.

“There’s an incredible sense of accomplishment to have done this for three years in a row,” Mears said. “It doesn’t get old at all. This is my 13th year at Briarwood doing this and this third one is just as special as before because I’ve walked off the court disappointed plenty of times.”

Possibly the most impressive aspect of this year’s team was the ability to do what the Lions did without a single senior on the team, meaning a four-peat will be well within grasp next season.

The Briarwood girls team also had an impressive showing at the event finishing fifth with a total of 32 points, while UMS-Wright won the tournament with 54 points.

“I’m really proud of our girls too,” Mears said. “We’ve walked away from Mobile not having played our best in the past, but this year we replaced three seniors, but this team didn’t waiver stepped up throughout the year.

A big reason for that success was Kara Coleman and Callie Ware.

Coleman, a freshman, went on to win her three matches in straight sets to claim the individual championship, which redeemed last year’s loss in the semifinals as an eighth grader. Ware also had a strong showing winning her first two matches in straight sets before dropping the championship match 6-2, 6-3.