Like many Thomson students, senior Josh Williford played the Big Two -- football and baseball -- growing up. However, a strain to his ACL playing junior varsity football prompted him to pick up a tennis racquet in the 10th grade.
"My dad told me, 'What you do now will affect you later,'" Williford said. "I said to myself, 'I don't want to limp the rest of my life.'"
He took his father's advice and made the switch. As a sophomore, he started the season at No. 1 doubles, but soon after moved up to No. 1 singles. He's played the top spot ever since. The Williford family has gravitated to tennis over the years. His father, Billy, played tennis for Thomson 25 years ago and would be now except for a bad case of tennis elbow. His younger sister, Shelby, plays No. 1 doubles for the girls.
The Bulldogs finished fourth in the region last year, qualifying for the state tournament for the first time since the 1990s, Williford said. Although the boys and girls teams lost to LaGrange in the first round, Williford was thrilled.
He would like to repeat. The Bulldogs are currently 3-1 in region and 4-4 overall. Two of those losses came against Lakeside and Aquinas, two nonregion powerhouses. Williford lost to Aquinas' No. 1 Denton Boone 8-3 in a pro set. Lakeside's Andrew Dromsky downed Williford 8-1. Boone is ranked No. 246 in USTA Boys' 18 in Georgia, while Dromsky, a college prospect, is ranked No. 25. Williford doesn't compete in USTA tournaments. In fact, he's never taken a lesson from a certified tennis professional.
"I wish I had started when I was young, because I could have some of the experience they had," said Williford, wearing a University of South Carolina cap backward before practice Thursday.
The Bulldogs were forced to practice after a match against region opponent Josey was canceled because it didn't field a team this season.
Williford is one of only four seniors on the boys and girls teams. Fresh faces returned balls Thursday from first-year coach Kristen Garrett during a drill. The boys lost their No. 1 and No. 2 doubles players. But they have only six on team this season and have had to forfeit No. 2 doubles.
"We've tried and tried," Williford said about recruiting students. "Tennis, golf and soccer are on the backburner (at Thomson)."
Garrett said she counts on Williford to encourage the younger players.
"He's a positive person," she said. "Yesterday, I had him working with the No. 1 doubles team on drills."
Williford has been accepted to Georgia Southern, where he plans to play intramural tennis. His long-range goal is to transfer to Georgia Tech and major in biomedical engineering. He said he has a passion for anatomy and mathematics and would like to research and develop new medicines.
"Just trying to help out the world," he said.
At the moment, he's trying to help the team return to state.