Havre Daily News Sports Editor
Tennis weather? Maybe if you have an indoor facility. However, it appears Mother Nature has cooperated just enough in recent days to allow the Havre High tennis team to open its 2005 season.
The Ponies will head west to Cut Bank on Saturday to open their season with the Cut Bank Dual Tournament.
Havre will have dual matches with Lewistown, Cut Bank and Conrad with no team scores being kept. Even in the event of inclement weather, the tournament will be played, much to the delight of second-year HHS head coach George Ferguson.
"I like this format to start the season," he said. "It allows us to mix and match our lineup a little and take a look at some different combinations of players and see how things shape up."
Unfortunately for Ferguson, the weather hasn't allowed him to do that yet this season. The Ponies have only had a handful of outdoor practices with several cut short because of frigid conditions.
"The weather has not cooperated with us at all this season," he said. "We haven't been able to get into any kind of practice rhythm. It's definitely a concern because last season we got three full weeks of practice before we played a match, and it really paid off at the end of the season."
So instead of coming into the season sharp, the Ponies will have to shake off the off season rust while they play, which Ferguson said is never a good thing.
"Hopefully they understand that we are behind schedule and that they will have to work a lot harder in practice to catch up," Ferguson said.
Even with the late start, the Ponies are still considered state title contenders in both divisions, particularly the boys.
The HHS boys will be vying for an unprecedented sixth straight Class A boys team title, and are the odds-on favorite with every player returning from last year's championship squad.
"Obviously, our boys team should be in very good shape to make another run at the state title," Ferguson said. "But I never look at anything as a given in tennis."
Leading the state champion boys is senior Kyle Baltrusch, who is the three-time defending state boys singles champion. Despite the difficulty that comes with winning a fourth title, Baltrusch is still the player to beat in Class A.
Joining Baltrusch is a pair of defending state champions in the doubles team of seniors Marc Mariani and Gary Wagner. The duo lost just one match last season and were basically unbeatable against Class A opponents.
Also returning are state qualifiers Chase Castloo, Coda Tchida, Billy Wagner along with varsity players Scott Miller, Ryan Kinholt, Lucas Hamilton, John Christian and Jordan Croft. Also looking to push for varsity spots are freshmen Todd Roe and David Zentmire, Brad Hanson, Tim McLain and Austin Wilson.
"What really has me excited is the mix of veterans and young kids on the boys team," Ferguson said. "We have a very talented group of freshman boys and some good sophomores. Getting to play with these seniors will only make them and our team better."
While the Pony boys garnered much of the headlines last season, the HHS girls quietly put together one of their best seasons in recent memory, finishing third at state.
With everybody returning from last year's squad, Ferguson believes his girls team could also vie for a state team title as well.
"Our girls team is looking very deep and very talented," he said. "We have perhaps the best singles player and the best doubles team in the state."
Indeed, senior Amy McLain returns to the Ponies after finishing second last season in the singles division, while the doubles team of juniors Steph Flatau and Keelie Solomon finished fourth at last year's state tourney.
But the state tourney experience doesn't end there. Senior Megan Rice returns after a strong showing last season along with junior Karissa Olson.
Still, Ferguson knows that those five alone can't bring home the team title.
"Hopefully, it will be our depth that sets us apart this season," he said. "We have a host of juniors and sophomores that made great strides last season and should raise their play to the next level."
Those players include sophomore Christen Kittelson, junior Kristi Hollingshead and junior Kari Gorder. There are also a pair of freshmen, Katie Mariani and Hailey McLain, that are also pushing for varsity spots.
"They are way ahead of where most freshmen are at this point," Ferguson said. "They will only add to our overall depth."
Like the boys, the girls will be trying to rid the off season rust from their games. But Ferguson remains positive that both teams will get things going.
"The important thing this early is not how we do, but what we do," he said. "Our goal right now is just to get where we were when the state tournament ended a year ago as fast as possible and then start improving on that."
It will be important for Havre to get that level quickly, as the Ponies will be facing their toughest schedule in a long time.
"We have a very demanding schedule this year and it should make our teams very strong," Ferguson said. "We play three Class AA tournaments in a row and then finish it up with duals against Whitefish and Polson, who are both teams that should compete for a state title. It should be good preparation for us."
The Ponies open the dual tournament against Lewistown on Saturday at 9:30 a.m.