BOYS TENNIS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Brookwood, Mills finish with state title

Brandon Mills had an exceptional season at No. 1 singles, powering Brookwood to the Class AAAAAA state championship. (Photo: Will Hammock)

Brandon Mills had an exceptional season at No. 1 singles, powering Brookwood to the Class AAAAAA state championship. (Photo: Will Hammock)

Brandon Mills’ introduction to tennis was different than most of his contemporaries in Georgia.

The Brookwood standout was born in South Africa, where he and his older brother first started hitting tennis balls with their grandmother, Shirley McIntyre. She set up a makeshift net out of a ladder, creating a court out of her driveway.

“I learned all skills from her,” said Mills, the Daily Post’s boys tennis player of the year. “Tennis is not in our family at all except for her. … I have fantastic memories from back then. I go back every now and then and it’s nice to see where we started out.”

Mills, like his older brother Grayson, has come a long way from those early days.

Now one of the region’s top players, he led Brookwood to the Class AAAAAA state championship this season with a 19-2 record. Both of his losses were to highly ranked, out-of-state players during a tournament in Pensacola, Fla.

“Brandon had a great season,” Brookwood tennis coach Bill Shields said. “It’s important to have that leadoff guy who can go out there and put you up 1-0. The guy works very hard and tennis is very, very important to him. After our matches, he goes to his practices. He works hard at it. And he’s a great teammate.”

In addition to his coaches, Mills had a few tennis role models in his own family. His grandmother was a major influence, and so was his older brother, a former Bronco state champion himself and now an all-conference player at Presbyterian College (S.C.).

Despite the age difference, the Mills brothers are very close friends who have followed the same athletic path. Both played baseball after moving to the U.S. a decade ago and later switched to full-time tennis.

“We’re very similar,” Brandon Mills said. “Our mindset is the same with work ethic. We both agree you’re not going to get good without practicing. We go to the gym together, play tennis together, practice together. We watch movies. He’s a big car guy and I like my cars as well. Our conversations are endless. We’re like the same person. We play tennis every day.”

The younger Mills also will join his brother’s college team in August. He plans to major in physics, the same as his brother.

“I had built relationships with the coaches there already, but I was looking at other schools as well,” Mills said. “But PC had the best combination of tennis, schooling and friends.”

Like his brother, Mills also finished his prep career as a state champion.

He enjoyed the return to high school tennis immensely after missing out his sophomore and junior seasons, when he used the time to work on private tennis training. He didn’t get to play for the Broncos’ 2013 state championship team, but he did his part this season to help them to a repeat title.

It was the second state title of his high school career — he played No. 2 doubles for Brookwood’s state championship team in 2011.

“I wanted to spend more time practicing and my coach thought I should practice more to get to next level,” Mills said of missing the 2012 and 2013 Brookwood seasons. “It helped me get in position to help my team senior year and get into college. At the time, I wasn’t doing the best I could. I wasn’t reaching my potential. So it helped me a lot. … My biggest regret looking back is I missed the guys on the team and all the stories they have from previous years. But I think I made enough memories senior year. It was definitely a year to remember.”

Brookwood rolled through Georgia competition again this season, finishing 26-0. Aside from a 3-2 win over Alpharetta in the quarterfinals, the Broncos won all of their playoff matches by 3-0 scores, including the state finals against Lassiter.

“It was smooth. No real hiccups,” Mills said of the season. “It was good competition compared to previous years. We had some tough matches here and there. The biggest one was Alpharetta. We called that the state final match. We knew Lassiter was missing their top three kids when we played them in the state finals. That was kind of bummer that they didn’t have their top guys. But we knew Alpharetta was highlight of season.”

The tough test against talented Alpharetta put the pressure squarely on Mills, with the match 2-2 and only the No. 1 singles match still going between Mills and the Raiders’ Abhin Sharma. The state championship hopes of both teams rested on their top singles players.

Mills won the first set in a tiebreaker 7-6 (9-7), only to watch Sharma recover for a 6-3, second-set victory. With both teams and fans surrounding his court, the Broncos standout finished off the victory with a 6-3 score in the third set.

“I have video of that and I don’t think I’ve ever stopped watching it,” Mills said. “Everyone was crowded around, focusing on us two. One of us had to walk out a winner and I got lucky with it. It was remarkable the team could do it, that we could pull it out.”