COVINGTON, Ga. -- In 16 years of existence, coming into this school year, Peachtree Academy athletics had zero state championships to boast of.
But at the end of the day on Tuesday April 25, Peachtree Academy suddenly had two.
Both the Panthers’ boys and girls tennis teams took home the state title in the Georgia Independent Christian Athletic Association after the girls defeated Unity Christian of Rome — the 2016 defending state champs — and the boys got past Faith Christian out of Waynesboro to claim its crown at the Clayton Tennis Center in Jonesboro.
The boys were led in their defeat of Faith Christian by stellar performances from top singles players Kane Mills (6-2, 6-0), Lawson Van Ness (6-0, 6-0) and Ben Walters (7-6, 6-2). For the girls, it was Samantha Van Ness (6-2, 6-4) and the doubles teams of McKenzie Johnson and Maddie Davidson (6-4, 6-2) and Karley Johnson and Lydia Clark (6-0, 6-0).
And for head tennis coach Ken Van Ness, there couldn’t have been a sweeter way for the Panthers to accomplish their “first.”
“I’m just extremely proud of them and all their hard work,” said Van Ness, who also serves as the school’s athletic director. “They put it in so much hard work, and I knew that it was going to pay off.”
For the girls, it was actually a little bit of sweet revenge involved in their championship performance. The Lady Panthers were last year’s runners up, and took the loss to Unity Christian in the state finals. It was enough to fuel the Lady Panthers through the offseason and all season long to carry a bit of a chip on their shoulders this year.
“It was an expectation for these girls to get back to the finals,” Van Ness said. “We had that runner up finish last year, and we knew we’d probably be facing the same schools this year (in the tournament) as we did last year, based on who we knew was coming back. I’m elated that they did get over the tp this year.”
So is Johnson, a senior who was a part of last year’s runner up squad.
“It was awesome for me personally,” Johnson said. “I’ve been playing since my freshman year here. Last year was the first state championship I’d ever played for, but to come back and win it this year is probably one of my favorite memories academically and athletically.”
Lawson Van Ness, also a senior, called the accomplishment an aspiration of his since he started playing tennis.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to win the state title before leaving Peachtree,” he said. “So it’s just awesome to be able to do this during my senior year. And the fact that this is the first state champion team for the school in any sport makes it very, very sweet.”
Lawson Van Ness has been around the program since middle school. Coach Ken Van Ness is his father, and the architect of the school’s tennis program. And with Lawson’s sister Samantha being apart of the triumph, it made it doubly meaningful.
But Lawson and Ken Van Ness, as long as Johnson will both tell you that the tennis teams aren’t just close by way of family genetics. There was a special bond both of these teams had with their own teammates and each other that set the season over the top for the Panthers.
“The boys team wasn’t nearly as large as the girls,” Lawson Van Ness said, “but we made due with the smaller numbers we had. We were always competing. We’re very, very close with each other.This year, the No. 1 singles and doubles played with and each other. I think that made us more comfortable with each other.”
Johnson agreed with Lawson Van Ness’ assessment. She, too, notice an uptick in unity among the Lady Panthers bunch.
“I think the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year was that we’re more a family this year than we were then,” Johnson said. “We had two girls on the team last year who got home schooled. And I think this year we just got closer.”
Sisters Esther and Lydia Clack are the ones Johnson was referring to. But the affinity the girls took on for each other extended to the boys squad as well. Both teams were rooting for each other as hard as they were supporting and striving for themselves.
“On line three Samantha (Van Ness) was tied at four all before she won 5-4,” Johnson said. “We were on the edge of our seats waiting. When she won, we immediately went over to cheer for the boys.”
When they got over to the boys’ side, they found them dealing with a little drama of their own.
“It was funny,” Lawson Van Ness said. “I finished my match, and I won it 6-0, 6-0, so it was pretty quick. I knew Ben (Walters) was up 5-0 at one point, and as soon as I finished my match, I ran over to cheer him on. He scared me near the end because he had gotten forced to a tiebreaker, but he came away with the win at the end.”
Walters’ triumph sealed the championship for the Peachtree boys, and made Lawson Van Ness out to be a bit of a prophet.
“I told Ben before the match, ‘it’s all gonna come down to you, so you’ve gotta make sure you’re head’s screwed on right,’” Lawson Van Ness said. And he made it. He pulled it out, and it was so cool to see that it was exactly how I thought it would be.”
Johnson said she also had a good feeling ahead of time that her squad would come away hoisting championship hardware.
“I don’t think there was a time this season that we didn’t think we’d make it here,” she said. “I knew when we got to state and went through our bye match and quarterfinals. I knew right then it was going to happen. We were telling each other that we’re gonna beat Unity and we’re gonna win state.”
That confident spirit was born out of the way the team competed with each other in practice throughout the season, according to coach Van Ness.
“The biggest thing, I think, for the girls was just the way they were challenging each other in practice,” he said. “It’s not always easy playing against friends. It could be difficult, but for these girls, it made it fun. I told them straight out, my best players will play. You can be best friends off the court, and we’ll leave as Peachtree Panthers, but on the court, you play to win. That’s whether you’re in practice or in a match. And they did that very well, and it paid off.”
For the boys, it was a matter of coach Van Ness seeing how the brackets were shaping up, and how that coincided with the fact that his boys were playing their best tennis of the season.
“I knew with my boys I had solid one and two singles, but we needed a third singles player to step up,” he said. “They were able to do that. Then when we got into the playoffs and saw how things were happening, I told those guys, ‘You have a chance now to win state.’ It was always an expectation for us to get there, but we didn’t know realistically if we could make it there. But after the way we competed in the regular season, all of a sudden, we had a legit chance to do it, and they got the job done.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the job they did staying focused. It truly payed off for them.”
Inside Peachtree Academy Tennis
Peachtree Academy Boys — 7-2 overall record.
Zane Bryant, Senior
Kane Mills, Senior
Samuel Prince, Senior
Daniel Taylor, Freshman
Logan Tyndall, Freshman
Lawson Van Ness, Senior
Ben Walters, Senior
Peachtree Academy Girls — 8-1 overall record.
Esther Clack, 8th Grade
Lydia Clack, 7th Grade
Maddison Davidson, Senior
Seka Dembure, Junior
Victoria Jeske, Senior
Karley Johnson, Senior
McKenzie Johnson, Senior
Samantha Johnson, Freshman
Karigan Milligan, Senior
Bethany Needham, Sophomore
Riddhi Patel, Senior
Samantha Van Ness, Junior