Havre Daily News
Life has been pretty good for both the Havre High boys and girls tennis teams over the last few years, and even the last few weeks.
The Havre High boys team is coming off an impressive eighth straight Central A title last week in Lewistown. The Ponies enter Thursday's opening day of the Class A state tennis tournament in Polson and Ronan as the six-time defending state champions.
Meanwhile, the HHS girls team ran away with its third straight Central A title last Saturday. The last two seasons, the Blue Ponies have finished third and second, respectively, at the Class A state tournament.
But things aren't always as they seem, and in order for both HHS teams to continue hogging the hardware at the state tournament, the Ponies are going to have to withstand stern tests all weekend.
“This is a much different state tournament atmosphere than our boys program is used to,” HHS head coach George Ferguson said. “We are not coming into this thing as the overwhelming favorite like we have for the last three or four years. We are too young and we don't have some of the same experience that we have had in the past.
“And while our girls team does have a lot of experience,” Ferguson added, “we are up against some very good and very deep teams this year. We are going head-to-head with several teams that have just as much depth and talent as we do. So neither tournament is going to be easy, that is for sure.”
As tough as things may sound for the HHS boys team, Ferguson certainly isn't counting his team out of the title race. Havre qualified eight boys for the state tournament, including all three of its doubles teams. The Ponies also have both the Central A doubles and singles champions in the field this week.
But for the first time in five seasons, the HHS boys will not bring a returning state champion to the Class A state meet. During Havre's current state title run, the Ponies got back-to-back state singles titles from Kellan Malone and an unprecedented four straight titles from 2005 graduate Kyle Baltrusch. The Ponies are also on a three-year winning streak in the doubles competition, including the last two doubles titles, which were won by the tandem of Marc Mariani and Gary Wagner. The streak was started in 2003 by Jeremy Heninger and Daine Solomon.
Despite the lack of past state champions on Havre's roster, Ferguson has insisted all season that the cupboard was definitely not bare. And the Ponies proved that at the Central A meet on Saturday.
John Christian and Billy Wagner earned the Central A championship by defeating what many considered the top doubles team in Class A in Matt and Stephen Gruener of Lewistown. In fact, Wagner and Christian have beaten the Gruener's three straight weeks, and that makes them one of the favorites in the doubles competition this week. Christian and Wagner will open the tournament with Josiah Norby and Scott Couch of Hardin, who placed fourth at Eastern A Divisional.
Havre also has its No. 2 team of Ryan Kinholt and Todd Roe and its No. 3 team of Jordan Croft and David Zentmire in the field this week. Ferguson said that fact gives his team somewhat of an edge, at least in the doubles tournament.
“We have three pretty good doubles teams in the tournament,” Ferguson said. “And that is really big, because one of the teams we're going to battle this week has three pretty good singles players in the field. This tournament may come down to who gets the most out of each.”
The Ponies also have the Central A singles champion in senior Chase Castloo and the runner-up in freshman Shane Kemmer. While neither player is widely considered a favorite in what is being called the toughest boys singles draw in recent memory, Castloo has some state tournament experience to draw on, and Kemmer is one of the most exciting freshmen to come to Havre High since Baltrusch's freshman year.
“Chase is as talented a player as there is in Class A and that is fact,” Ferguson said. “But he has come up in an era when boys singles is on the rise and that has made it tough for him to score points at state. But he has been here each of the last two years, and he won't be intimidated by anybody.
“And Shane Kemmer is someone that could really do some things at this tournament,” he added. “Nobody knows who he is or how good he is outside of our division, and he is a very good player in spite of how young he is.”
If the Ponies are going to collect their seventh straight state championship, and make history, they will have to do it by committee. Havre has swept the singles and doubles titles in each of the last two seasons, and by doing so, the Ponies ran away from the field.
Ferguson said that isn't likely to happen this season.
“We are going to have to rely on our depth to get it done this year,” he said. “And we do have the depth and talent to score more than enough points. But Corvallis is the team that is really standing in our way. We're going to have to have some help from other teams and at the same time we're going to have to play our best tennis of the season. If those two things happen, we'll be right there at the end of the tournament.”
Corvallis is a team that Ferguson has pointed to all season long. The Blue Devils have three outstanding singles players, including senior Colin Fehr, who would have been considered the favorite in singles this year if Hamilton's Hector Maldanado had not transferred from Ecuador. Maldanado is undefeated this season, and has two wins over Fehr.
The Ponies and Blue Devils will go head-to-head twice in the first round, with Castloo taking on No. 3 singles player T.J. Warner and Kemmer squaring off against No. 2 singles player Geoff Fehr. The Blue Devils also have a strong doubles team in Trevor Fehr and Tony Gold.
“Corvallis is very talented and they have as much depth as we do,” Ferguson said. “If things go their way, they may be very tough to beat. But Polson and Whitefish are also capable of doing something this weekend and Billings Central could be the darkhorse of the tournament. So this thing might come down to the last match or two of the last day. Hopefully, we'll be in one of those matches with our fate in our own hands because that is the way you want it to happen.”
While the Havre High boys team will try to join the HHS girls swimming team in winning seven straight state titles, the Blue Pony girls are still searching for their first state championship. The Ponies took third two years ago, and they came agonizingly close last season, losing to Dillon by a mere two points.
At the beginning of the 2006 campaign, prognosticators might not have picked Havre to be a state title contender because the Ponies lost senior Amy McLain who placed third and second at the state tournament in consecutive years. Havre also said goodbye to Megan Rice, who scored multiple points for the ponies in each of the last two state tournaments.
Despite all of that, Havre has emerged as one of the teams to beat in Polson this weekend, thanks in large part to the play of its three doubles teams as well as an outstanding young talent in singles.
The Ponies will bring eight girls to the state tournament, the most in school history, including all three of their doubles teams. Havre is led by Central A champions Steph Flatau and Keelie Solomon, who will be the talk of the doubles tournament this week as they try to capture the State A title in their fourth straight appearance in the state tournament.
“Steph and Keelie are on a mission, there is no doubt,” Ferguson said. “It seems like they have been here forever, because they took fourth at state as freshmen. They have a tough draw because they will play the Dillon team in the semifinals and in my opinion, they are the only ones standing in the way of Steph and Keelie's dream coming true. They have worked hard in heir career and they deserve for this year to be their year.”
If Solomon and Flatau capture the state doubles crown, that will make life much easier on the rest of the HHS team. But the Ponies have a lot more firepower in their arsenal thanks in large part to the emergence of No. 2 doubles team Alexa Lipp and Karissa Olson and veteran No. 3's Kari Gorder and Kristi Hollingshead. If those two teams play well in Polson, Havre could be staring at its first state title.
“I admit I was reluctant to put Karissa in doubles at the beginning of the year,” Ferguson said. “But it has made our team so much deeper. She and Alexa have lost three matches all season, so I guess it was the right move after all.
“And Kari and Kristi have been playing together since the first day of their sophomore year, and they decided that they were going to really improves as a doubles team this season,” he added. “And they have went out and done that and now they are reaping the rewards of all of that work. I think having six seniors in doubles is a big advantage for us this week.”
Like their male counterparts, the Havre High girls have two singles players in the draw this week, including Central A champion Katie Mariani. The sophomore burst on the scene last year, by winning two matches in her first appearance at the state tournament. This season, Mariani has emerged as Havre's go-to singles player, and she will be a key to Havre's team success at the state meet. Havre will also rely on scrappy freshman Hope Hedges to score points in the singles draw. Hedges has been a huge surprise in what was once looked upon as a rebuilding year for Havre in girls singles.
“Katie has a chance to do very well this weekend but the girls singles draw is tough, especially with a two-time state champion (Danni Paulson) in it,” Ferguson said. “But I would bet on Katie every day of the week and twice on Sunday, she is that kind of a singles player. It is the matches she isn't expected to win where she plays her best tennis.”
Whitefish may have a slight edge in the team title thanks to an almost guaranteed 16 points from Paulson, who hasn't lost a match in three years of Montana High School tennis. Besides Paulson, the Bulldogs also have two strong doubles teams in the field and that depth may prove too much for any team to overcome. Polson is another strong team, who also has enough depth to walk away with the state title on Friday night.
“The girls race is a lot like the boys,” Ferguson said. “The draws are very similar because you have a singles player who is almost unbeatable and three our four very good doubles teams.
“So I think for our girls team to get or trophy or even first-place, our depth is going to have to be the determining factor,” he added. “We have a lot of fighters on this team, and I know they will do whatever it takes to stay in the tournament. If we have all of our kids still playing on the second day, we are going to be in very good shape. One thing is for sure, these girls have a lot of confidence right now and that is a dangerous thing this time of year.”
The 2006 Class A state tennis tournament will get under way at 8 a.m. Thursday. The boys tournament will be played in Ronan on the first day and the girls tournament will be played in Polson. The remainder of the tournament will played out Friday in Polson.