GBHS player, coach win clay court title
Only a few years ago, Hayden Essary’s first love and athletic future involved throwing pitches on the mound for his travel baseball team. Thanks in large part to pro instructor and Gulf Breeze’s own Brock Sakey, tossing a different ball on serve in tennis is now his desire.
When baseball didn’t work out due to injury, the transition to tennis was a very smooth one.
Essary, a Gulf Breeze senior, now plays at the No. 1 position under the tutelage of Sakey. He is also a high-ranked junior circuit player.
His growth and prowess reached another pinnacle recently, as he and his coach teamed to win the top open doubles division title of the Pensacola Adult Clay Court Championships at Roger Scott Tennis Center.
“Honestly, this means the world to me, because Brock has always been there since the start,” said Essary, currently ranked in the top 60 in 18’s in Florida.
“My freshman year, I started to pick up a racquet — I was unsure if I really wanted to play tennis, or how far I wanted to go in it,” Essary said. “Brock just picked me up, he worked with me everyday – in the mornings, afternoons, anytime I wanted to hit – he was always there for me. And it really means a lot that I got to play with him of all people in a tournament.”
“For us to actually go out and win it, it really made a huge impact on my look at it.”
The tournament, which featured players from Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia along with Florida, was a first for the pair who have been working together for three-plus years. Sakey also cherished the moment, knowing the countless hours the two have spent on local tennis courts.
“It was a really special moment to win the tournament — especially with Hayden, who I’ve been working with for a while coaching,” Sakey said. “It was a very strong tournament, so it was pretty cool that two local teams made it to the finals.”
“We knew we had to play well to win. We stepped up at all the right times and really played well, and felt strong about our teamwork,” Sakey said.
“We spend a lot of time together, both on and off the court. He’s always been a very fun, very hard working guy to be around, and he’s very coachable. His family was there to watch and my family was able to be there and watch as well, so it was definitely a special time for both of us, I think.”
And it all wouldn’t have happened if not for a nasty arm issue that curtailed Essary’s dreams of playing baseball.
“Baseball was definitely my first love. I played for about eight or nine years, and I met all my buds there — I loved playing,” Essary said.
“My last year playing, I hurt my arm and I had tendinitis in my elbow — my elbow literally came off of my arm — so I had to take a break from that for a while,” he said. “I loved pitching — I wasn’t the best, but I could hit certain spots really well.”
With a little more time on his hands, it didn’t take him long to find a new sports niche just around the corner from the pitcher’s mound.
“As surprising as it sounds, I was watching my sister play volleyball at the rec center, and I saw a few of my buds who weren’t on my baseball team, just hitting around playing tennis,” Essary said.
“I walked up and just started playing a little bit, and they said, ‘Hey tryouts are coming up, you should try out and see if you make the team.’ I said, ‘You know what, I’ll give it a shot’. I worked there for about two weeks at it and I made the top five. I was five as a freshman, and that’s where it all started.”
From then on, you’d be hard-pressed not to see a racquet in his hand. He soon started hitting some at The Club in Gulf Breeze under then head pro Brian Sakey, who eventually referred him to his son, Brock.
“It all started when my mom was talking to me about some guy, and it was Brian’s son,” Essary said. “The first time I hit with Brock, I absolutely loved it. I had the most fun playing tennis. He really worked on my game, and we played a lot of just games and aspects of it and went through strategies, all in about an hour.”
“I felt like I had learned more in that hour than I have in my entire time playing tennis, and I just kept playing with him and doing lessons. He was always there for me.”
It’s turned out to be quite the tennis match made in Gulf Breeze, especially now that Brock is also his high school’s coach.
“It went from me hitting once a week with Brock to him being on my team and hitting almost everyday,” Essary said. “We have like a brothership almost. It’s really great, honestly.”
The timing couldn’t have been better as well for Brock. Sakey, who starred at the University of Central Florida from 2005-10, had pursued touring, but he wanted a break, and moved back home. With the closing of the Club (II), both Sakey and his father embraced the opportunity to teach at Scott, and Brock accepted a new tennis challenge at the high school.
“With the high school team, athletic director Matt Alt approached me as well as Jennie Barrow who’s been the coach there for several years to see if I was interested,” said Sakey, who is the Golden Knights leader in victories. “Luckily, all the pieces of the puzzle fell at the right time and I’ve been lucky enough to work more with Hayden and these outstanding group of kids.
“They all work very hard, and they try to make me laugh just as much as I try to put smiles on their faces. I’ve learned a lot from them, not only tennis wise, but life wise, and just putting everything into perspective. It’s really been a joyful process working with them.”
Since his freshman year and first glimpse of a tennis match, Essary’s game has come fullcircle, just as Sakey’s career has.
Essary’s strength on court has ensured him a playing spot at competitive Birmingham Southern College, once his high school days are done,
Sakey sees a very bright future for his friend, as long as he keeps his positive outlook. His confidence was one thing that was lacking before the two meshed early on.
“He’s doing great—obviously he’s committed to Birmingham Southern right now, and he’s really excited about that, and we’re excited for him,” Sakey said. “His work ethic was never a question, it was just getting him to believe that he could do it. Once we set a few goals, he’s knocked down every goal that I’ve given him and he’s given himself. He’s going to continue to improve and become a really good player.”
What was previously a weakness, was obviously a strong-point in their recent tournament championship.
“He’s very level headed during a match,” Sakey said. “He’s able to keep his composure, where a lot of people, especially juniors would kind of lose focus, and when they lose a few points they tend to get down on themselves.”
“He’s a very smart player — he’s worked really hard to get into great tennis shape. I’ve just taught him to believe in himself. When we first started, he wasn’t quite sure what he could accomplish. I really have tried to let him know that the sky is the limit, and for him to just keep pushing and pushing and pushing — he’ll just be amazed at the results, as long as he keeps working hard.”
Essary credits Sakey for helping add the confidence to win to his already competitive fire.
“I feel like my strength right now is my confidence and mental game,” Essary said. “In singles, I lost in the first round of the main draw — and the first round of my consolations, I was down a lot. I just needed one game to lose, and I just turned it around and ended up winning that match. Matches like that always help out your confidence, and those come once in a lifetime, so it really helps me with my mental aspect. That’s definitely now my strong suit.”
To achieve more tennis and career goals, Essary believes Birmingham Southern is the perfect college fit for him.
“It was really close to my grandparents — I love the location, the campus was gorgeous — it had a really good suit for me,” said Essary, who chose Birmingham Southern over the likes of Millsaps, Montevallo, Florida Tech and Belmont Abbey to further his education. He wants to pursue a degree in the mathematics field, most likely engineering.
“I feel like I already have a starting position on the team —down in the lower positions, but still be able to start as a freshman and I really liked the overall aspect of not as many people at the college as well.”
But there’s still much more to be accomplished at the high school level, from a team and individual aspect.
“I just hope he’s able to keep his focus and keep his hunger for the rest of his high school season--hopefully he can make a good run at state,” Sakey said.
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but the goal is to win the district. From there he would get a bid to the state tourney, and then from there, hopefully he can do some damage and add a couple more quality wins to his resume. He has the skill set and mindset to do it, he’s just got to put it all together at the right time—and I believe he will.”
After a 5-1 start, Essary also believes his Dolphins can finish the season strong. Only real thing standing in the way? That previously familiar mental hump.
“I feel like we have a good chance at winning districts this year—honestly we could win regionals—our team just has to stay confident,” Essary said. “That’s the biggest problem with us right now—we have the guys who can do it, and we have the strokes and everything — but our confidence level is down. When we see these big names like Niceville and Leon, our guys just kind of freak-out and we collapse on ourselves. So we just need to work on that. We really have a good chance this year.”
Once thing is certain — Sakey and Essary, mentor and student, will always remember winning a title together on the Pensacola clay.
“They (Scott Baehr and Jason Hill) are two of the best players in town for sure, hands down. For us to beat them 6-4, 6-2, we had to play very, very good tennis,” said Sakey, who jokingly added the win may convince him to try touring again. “I’m really proud of the way Hayden stepped up. We served out the match, and returned pretty well all day. It was definitely a growing experience for him, in letting him realize how good he is and how far he’s come in not that long of time.”
Match point was most memorable for Essary, but it took a while for it all to sink in.
“I hit the ball the most on our last point. I hit seven or eight balls right at the net guy’s feet, and they just kept digging them out,” Essary said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, boy this is a struggle — it may be a lot harder than we think to pull this one out’. We were up 5-2, and that last point, it kind of made me look back whenever the ball went out, and say, ‘Wow — we actually just won this’. I just looked at Brock and threw my hands up in the air and said, ‘Hey, we just won!’
“It didn’t really hit me until a few hours later...I laid out my trophy and all that, where it actually hit me really hard. Memories just started rolling, and it was really great.”