Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Steven Bradley has been a solid No. 1 singles player for the Bulldogs despite being saddled with injuries the last two seasons. Now healthy again for the first time in three years, the senior has stepped up his game to become one of the county's top singles players.
It's not uncommon for even the most talented high school athletes to go through "growing pains."
However, that is just a figurative term.
North Gwinnett's Steven Bradley has experienced plenty of literal growing pains throughout his career with the Bulldogs tennis team, too.
But now in his senior year, Bradley is finally healthy and he has been a major force behind North earning the first state tournament berth in school history.
The Bulldogs will open the Class AAAAA tournament when they play host to Milton in a first-round match this afternoon at home.
"It's just been different stuff throughout the years -- the muscles and joints wearing down," said Bradley, who also plays year-round tennis, and is ranked No. 70 in Georgia in the Boys 18-and-under division. "First it was tennis elbow. Then, I had shoulder issues. Both (the elbow and shoulder) are pretty important in tennis.
"I'm just taking better care of them this year -- stretching more, working out more. And it's also just a little (better) luck, too."
Bradley's luck also has been North's good fortune as well.
While he was solid when he was able to play at the top of Bulldog lineup as a sophomore and junior -- accumulating a combined 18-11 record in the No. 1 singles spot the last two seasons -- Bradley has really begun to contribute this season.
His 10-5 record may seem only nominally better, but his victories have been key in North's runner-up finish in Region 7-AAAAA, and he has stepped up his game against some of his toughest opponents.
For instance, his win total includes a three-set victory over Brookwood's No. 1 singles player, Grayson Mills, currently ranked No. 6 in the state.
"Just being older and getting one more year has helped," Bradley said. "Being in the No. 1 singles spot is so tough in our region. ... I guess I feel more focused and I'm having fewer let downs and giving up big points (this year)."
In addition, North coach Paula Radloff said just his mere presence has had a positive effect on the Bulldogs' squad beyond the scoreboard.
"With so many of the premier athletes, that happens to them," Radloff said. "They get overused during their growing year, and they wind up missing time and getting a late start (to the season).
"But he's hardly had any injuries this year. He's gotten older and stronger, and he's helped tremendously, and not just as a player. Steven is an incredible mentor and team leader. He works with the other kids, and he can come out and work with them a lot more (this year) because he feels good and is able to go on with his personal drills."
While Bradley has given strength to his teammates with his experience and leadership, he insists the inspiration has been a two-way street.
He says has gained just as much inspiration and encouragement from the Bulldogs as he's given.
"I have so much more confidence with this team," Bradley said. "I know if I have a bad day, they can get it done. This year's team (making it to state) is a great way to go out."
The state tournament will be Bradley's farewell tour for competitive tennis for the most part.
Though he had offers to play college tennis from several Division II and III programs, he has opted to attend the University of Georgia in the fall, though he hopes to continue playing club tennis.
In the meantime, he wants to make the most of this last opportunity for success on the high school level.
"This is the first time in something like 51 or 52 years (North) has been to state," said Bradley, who carries a 3.7 grade- point average and hopes to major in political science at Georgia. "We want to take it as far as we can."