The South Aiken boys' tennis team is playing with a lot of confidence heading into Saturday's state championship match, which is nothing new for the program.
That's likely for a couple of reasons. One is that the T-Breds, defending Class AAAA state champs, have obliterated any challenge in their path during their latest playoff run.
The other is that they may very well be a strong reflection of head coach Rakesh Jasani, a player who was brimming with confidence while winning back-to-back state titles during his South Aiken playing days.
The second of those came on May 11, 1999, when South Aiken picked up its second of three consecutive titles and sent Jasani and his fellow seniors out as winners.
The opponent that day at Barnwell High School? Hilton Head High School.
Nineteen years later, this current group of T-Breds is also looking to go back-to-back. And to accomplish that, they have to go through the same school, now known as Hilton Head Island High School, at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Cayce Tennis & Fitness Center.
If nothing else, it makes for a fun rallying cry for the T-Breds.
"We've got to go make it 2-0 in state championships against Hilton Head," Jasani said with a laugh. "Hopefully we're up for the challenge and we'll be ready."
South Aiken has been up for every challenge so far, so much so that the T-Breds haven't really been challenged at all. They've won all four of their playoff matches by a 6-0 score, including Monday's decimation of Daniel on the road in the Upper State championship.
The state semifinal, like last year's 4-3 win at Greenville, has often been South Aiken's first true test of the season. This year, they rode Sebastian Rogerson's early win at No. 3 singles and kept the momentum rolling to another quick victory.
"We came out firing right out the gate. I told them we needed to get off to a good start; you want to keep their crowd out of it as much as possible," Jasani said. "They had a big crowd cheering them on. The best thing was we got off to a hot start, got off to an early lead, kind of got the crowd out of it, and then continued to apply pressure and keep the momentum going."
It's not been the same story for Hilton Head Island, which survived a difficult Lower State half of the bracket. The Seahawks went the distance in each of their last two matches, winning 4-3 over both Myrtle Beach and A.C. Flora, the latter of which South Aiken beat for the title last year.
"It works both ways. We're just keeping the momentum going our way," said Jasani. "One thing they might have an advantage on us is playing some closer matches. If it gets down to the nitty-gritty on Saturday, some of these guys have actually been playing some recent matches under those circumstances with a lot of pressure."
Jasani doesn't expect that to faze his players, though. After all, the South Aiken program has been involved in its fair share of high-stakes matches over the last six years, and he doesn't think his guys will be afraid of the moment.
Senior Aaron Sklizovic, who won at No. 2 singles and teamed with his brother Alex at No. 1 doubles to clinch last year's state title, will be playing in his fourth state championship match. Thane Tiffany, a sophomore, will be playing in his third state championship match, as will senior Ethan Ploeger. Pate Rowan and Sebastian and Christian Rogerson will all be appearing in their second in a row.
South Aiken is playing in its sixth consecutive state championship match, having won in 2013 and '17 with three straight losses to Spartanburg's dynasty in between. Hilton Head Island, coached by Jennifer Weitekamper, is playing in its third in five years – the Seahawks beat Flora for the Class AAA title in 2014 and lost the rematch the following year.
While the Seahawks have been battle-tested recently, the T-Breds could have their own advantage in their strength from the top to the bottom of their roster.
"I credit our success for many, many years to having that depth. We've had a few strong horses up top in the past, but for the most part we've won through depth," Jasani said. "At any given day, our No. 3 can beat our No. 7, and vice versa."
South Aiken is peaking at the right time, each match producing a performance Jasani has called its best of the season. The T-Breds are going to have to play their best one Saturday, and they will soon find out which part of their "championship-or-bust" mantra comes true.
"They know what we expect. We expect success, and we expect to be in these kinds of matches year in and year out," Jasani said. "... I know we'll be hungry and ready to get one more here on Saturday."