Havre Daily News Sports Editor
"If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best." Yeah, it's corny and cliche, but that doesn't make it any less true.
For the Havre High tennis team, this weekend's Helena Invitational tennis tournament offers the opportunity for the Ponies to match-up with some of the best tennis players in the state of Montana.
The Helena Invite is perhaps the biggest and toughest tennis tournament in the state, state tournaments included. The tourney field features every Class AA school along with Class A powers Havre, Dillon, Livingston and Anaconda.
The tournament is set up a little differently than most with separate brackets for the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 singles players and three separate brackets for the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 doubles teams. It levels the playing field some what and supposedly matches up comparable players. However, every bracket is still very difficult.
Tough as the competition may be, the Ponies have done extremely well in Helena. A year ago, Havre swept the team titles in the tourney. But to accomplish that feat this year, it will be a little more difficult.
Because of the District Music Festival in Havre, the Ponies will be without senior Gary Wagner, while the girls team loses its No. 1 doubles team in Steph Flatau and Keelie Solomon, along with No. 3 singles player Karissa Olson and the No. 2 doubles team of Kristi Hollingshead and Kari Gorder.
The absences have forced HHS head coach George Ferguson to revamp his lineups, particularly the girls. The singles will remain largely the same with Amy McLain in her usual No. 1 spot. Megan Rice will stay at No. 2, while freshman Katie Mariani moves up to No. 3. In the doubles, Havre won't have a No. 1 team competing in the difficult bracket. Christen Kittelson and Jocelyn Chagnon will compete as the No. 2 team, while Molly Proctor and Angie Maxwell go as the No. 3 team."
"Unfortunately, we are once again without most of our normal girls varsity," Ferguson said. "So as a team, it will be hard for us to compete. But it will also be good experience for our young players like Jocelyn, Molly, Christen and Angie."
Even with a different lineup, Ferguson still expects some successful showings, particularly in the singles. McLain finished second last year in the No. 1 bracket, and she should compete for a title. Rice was one win away from placing last year, while Mariani has steadily improved.
"We should do very well in girls singles," Ferguson said. "This tournament is where Amy started to make her tremendous run last year, and she is probably one of the top four players in the draw this weekend. But there are some very good singles players in AA at No. 1 so things will be very challenging for her.
"Megan should also do very well at No. 2. Last year, she came within a match of placing in this tournament and she should be able to better that this season. This will be a pretty new experience for Katie Mariani because she hasn't played No. 3 players at this level. But she is really playing well for a freshman, and I think she could definitely surprise some people this weekend."
While the girls losses are much more widespread, the absence of Wagner forces Ferguson to do some serious lineup adjustments for the weekend. Kyle Baltrusch will remain in the No. 1 singles spot, while Marc Mariani will slide over from doubles into the No. 2 singles spot. Scott Miller will remain at No. 3. In the doubles, the normal No. 2 team of Coda Tchida and Billy Wagner will move up to No. 1, while Chase Castloo will move from singles to team up with John Christian at the No. 2 doubles team. The No. 3 will feature Lucas Hamilton and Ryan Kinholt.
"I have to think Marc is one of the favorites in the No. 2 draw," Ferguson said. "Kyle will once again be in the always loaded boys No. 1 singles draw. But he has played at this high level for a long time. If he gets the right draw, he can do very well. He always plays great matches against AA opponents and takes a lot of pride in playing well at this meet."
Havre's doubles teams will definitely face a raised level of competition. Mariani and Gary Wagner won the No. 1 division last year, but it will be a tough task for Tchida and Billy Wagner.
"Boys doubles will be a little different for us this year," Ferguson said. "A Havre team has either won or finished second at this tournament in boys No. 1 the last four years. Coda and Billy will be a little overlooked, but this will be a valuable weekend for them in their quest to make noise at the end of the season. Win or lose, they will get better after this weekend."
After playing the same competition for the last three weeks, playing some new players will be refreshing. Ferguson would love to duplicate last year's success, but it realistic and looking further down the road.
"Although we are nowhere near full strength this weekend, we are still going to be very competitive in every bracket," Ferguson said. "We could have one or two champions depending on how things shake out. But with all of the practice time we missed early in the season, we still aren't fully caught up and so we are not playing at the level we were here a year ago.
"Still, this is one of the best tournament's in the state every year, and we want to take advantage of the competition we'll face, because it will make every one of our players better later in the season."
The Helena Invitational begins at 9 a.m. on Friday and concludes Saturday afternoon.