By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
After three weeks of playing the same competition, the Havre High school tennis team will get the luxury of facing some new faces and some new teams. Unfortunately for the Ponies, the new competition won't be quite as friendly.
Havre will face its stiffest competition of the year, including the state tournament, at today's Helena Invitational.
Eight boys teams and 11 girls teams will converge on the Helena tennis courts for what promises to be one of the best high school tournaments in the state.
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.
"This is the best tournament on our schedule every year," said head coach George Ferguson. "All of the top AA competition is in Helena this weekend except for the Missoula schools. It is a great thing for us to play up in competition right now. I think we need it right now for a number of reasons."
Some good competition may be just what the doctor ordered for Havre in particular the boys squad.
The HHS boys have at times seemed stagnant facing the same competition over and over in recent weeks. There won't be any room for lethargy this weekend.
"The boys team needs to be pushed a little bit," Ferguson said. "As a team we have struggled a little early in the season. We really haven't found a solid lineup yet. Playing at this level should focus the kids more and I expect to see the level of determination go up a notch or two."
The boys' singles lineup will remain somewhat the same with Kyle Baltrusch at No. 1 and Daine Solomon at No. 2 with Lucas Hamilton moving into the No. 3 spot, replacing Chase Castloo, who has been moved to doubles.
Baltrusch will feature a very tough bracket of No. 1 players. Three of the top five singles players in Class AA will be playing, including perhaps the state's best player, Sean Harris of Billings Senior. Solomon's bracket of No. 2's won't be a walk in the park either.
"Kyle and Daine are both playing very good tennis for mid-April, but this will be a tough weekend for both of them," Ferguson said.
The doubles No. 1 bracket will also provide a stern test for the team of Gary Wagner and Marc Mariani. The duo has been hardly been challenged this season, but that won't be the case in Helena.
"It will be a very tough bracket for Marc and Gary," Ferguson said. "But I still feel like if they play at the top of their game they should be one of the favorites."
Last season, Wagner and Mariani won the No. 2 doubles bracket and Havre had solid placers in the No. 3 singles and doubles bracket.
Unfotunately, those spots are where Havre is lacking the most experience. Still, Ferguson has high hopes for Hamilton, and the No. 2 doubles squad of Coda Tchida and Billy Wagner and the No. 3 team of Castloo and Jordan Croft.
"This a great opportunity for those doubles teams and Lucas to take their games to the next level," Ferguson said. " I expect them to do really well."
While Ferguson hopes the boys tournament will offer a push, the girls tournament will offer a glimpse of the future.
With the Missoula schools pulling out of the tournament, Central A squads Anaconda and Livingston were chosen to fill the spots along with Class A contender Dillon.
"The girls tournament has me really excited," Ferguson said. "We will be able to scout Anaconda and Livingston before divisional and that doesn't usually happen. Dillon is also there and they will be one of the teams that we will see at the state tournament."
But the excitement isn't just about seeing future opponents. The Havre girls should do very well against this weekend's opponents.
"Our girls team has chance to do pretty well," Ferguson said. "The Class AA girls isn't quite as loaded as the boys, so we should be right in the hunt."
Havre's singles' lineup will remain the same with Amy McLain playing No. 1, Megan Rice at No. 2 and Karissa Olson at No. 3.
McLain will face the toughest bracket of the three, but she has also been playing the best tennis of the three.
"Amy needs to play the top players in Montana," Ferguson said. "It will maker her a better player and ultimately she is going to find out that she is competing with that type of competition."
Rice and Olson have been playing very consistent in recent weeks and Ferguson expects that to continue, saying, "they're both capable of placing."
In the doubles portion, the No. 1 squad of Steph Flatau and Keelie Solomon will have their hands full with top bracket. Despite being just sophomores and facing tough competition, Ferguson isn't about to count them out.
"They are going to play to win and I wouldn't be surprised if they are still playing late on Saturday," he said.
For the No. 2 team of Kari Gorder and Katy Dow and the No. 3 team of Jocelyn Chagnon and Molly Proctor, this weekend will at least be a learning experience.
"Our other doubles teams are still adjusting to life in high school tennis," Ferguson said. "This experience will be good for them because our goal with is not what happens right now, but what happens in May."
Regardless of the pressure or the competition, Ferguson hopes his players take the right attitude into the weekend. Because in the end, it will be a good litmus test for how Havre will do in the postseason.
"This weekend will be a huge test," Ferguson said. "It will give us a pretty good idea of how we would do in a state tournament situation. Still, all of our boys and girls are very competitive and we aren't just going to a AA tournament for experience. We are going there to win matches, it doesn't matter who is across the net.
The Helena Invitational began play today at 9 a.m. and continues till Saturday afternoon.