By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
A year ago at this time, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Havre High boys tennis team would be winning another state championship this year.
How could you argue? The Ponies returned a two-time state champ in singles and a state runner-up in doubles along with a host of good younger players.
As play opens today in Lewistown, the Pony boys are still the favorite to win their fifth straight boys team championship, but it will be far from easy.
It's been an interesting two weeks for Havre and first-year head coach George Ferguson. The Ponies lost one of their best players just days before the divisional tournament and then missed out on qualifying their third doubles team for state when it failed to win a match at divisional. Havre's No. 3, Scott Miller, also missed out on state, coming within a match of qualifying.
With the adversity, Ferguson is still keeping a positive beat for the weekend.
"There has been a lot of speculation that it would be an easy road for our team to another state championship," Ferguson said. "But we knew early on that Class A boys tennis is getting much deeper and we're a much different team than last season. I would still label us as a strong favorite, but we know nothing is for certain, and we have worked all season on not taking anyone for granted at any time."
Indeed, Havre would still have to be the favorite on the boys' side. The Ponies are coming off a strong Central A divisional tournament led by divisional titles from Kyle Baltrusch and the doubles team of Gary Wagner and Marc Mariani.
Baltrusch, just a junior, looks to cement himself as one of the most successful singles players in HHS history by winning his third consecutive state singles title. He opens the tournament with Glendive's No. 3 singles player, Dan Safety, who finished fourth at the Eastern A divisional.
"Kyle is in a very unique position this weekend," Ferguson said. "Only one player (Ferguson's older brother, Dan) has ever won three straight boys state titles and that is what he is gunning for. He is peaking at the right time and he is playing very well in practice. He is also coming off of a very strong divisional tournament. I would definitely label him as a favorite this weekend but we know he isn't alone."
Indeed, Hamilton, Whitefish and Stevensville all have very good No. 1 singles players, and the competition is getting much tougher in the division, which Ferguson admitted was due to Baltrusch's dominance at such an early age.
"Kyle left the rest of Class A trying to catch up with him," he said. "But the really special thing about Kyle is that he is a big match player. He can take his game up a notch or two at any time and he is pretty tough mentally. That will serve him well as he runs into stronger opponents as the weekend goes on."
Wagner and Mariani finished second last season behind then teammates Jeremy Heninger and Daine Solomon. This season, Wagner and Mariani have been all but untouchable, losing just one match and basically crushing all Class A competitors they have faced. They open with Whitefish's No. 1 doubles team of Dan Fern and Izaak Opatz, who finished fourth at the Western A divisional.
"Marc and Gary are without a doubt one of the strongest doubles teams in the state of Montana regardless of classification," Ferguson said. "Their record against AA opponents reflects that. Playing a state championship team as they did last year every day against Jeremy and Daine not only made them better but it made them hungrier. They want what they didn't get last year."
Havre's No. 2 player, Chase Castloo, is coming off his finest weekend of tennis this season, losing to Baltrusch in the divisional finals. With a booming serve and hard ground strokes, Castloo will be a contender if he plays as he did last weekend. He will open with Hardin's No. 1 player, Andrew Wagner, who finished third in the Eastern A.
"If Chase plays like he did at divisionals and in practice this week, it will make him an instant contender to place this weekend," Ferguson said. "But this is his first state tourney, and he will have to be tough mentally if he wants to make a serious run."
Havre's No. 2 doubles team of Billy Wagner and Coda Tchida also finished second at divisional, losing to their teammates. The duo has shown flashes of solid play this season and will open with Polson's No. 2 team and Western A third-place finisher Andy Dykstra and Brett Vandenburg.
"Chase and Billy and Coda are going to be very important to us this weekend," Ferguson said. "Depth is huge in this tournament and any points they pick up will be big ones. They showed last weekend that they were ready to take things to the next level and I can't see any reason why that success won't continue in the state tournament."
While the HHS boys are looking for another title, the Pony girls are coming off their first Central A division title. Havre captured thel title a week ago, and hopes to build off the success in a very tough girls division. The tourney looks to be a three-team race featuring last year's runner-up and Western A champ Whitefish, Southern A champion Dillon and the Ponies.
"Even with all the success we had last weekend, our girls will be in a dogfight for a trophy," Ferguson said. "Both brackets are loaded with solid players. I think things are much deeper on the girls' side as a whole. But if the kids play like they did last weekend, we can be right in the thick of things once again."
Whitefish brings only three players to the tournament, but all three are solid and will face Havre's three singles players to open the tourney.
Havre's Karissa Olson got the unlucky duty of playing the best player in Class A, and the state, in Dani Paulson. Just a sophomore, Paulson transferred to Whitefish from a school in California and hasn't been touched this season, rolling up a 19-0 record.
Paulson is Whitefish's No.1 player, moving last year's Class A singles champ Allison Fey to No. 2. Havre's Megan Rice will square off against Fey in the first round.
It seems like a tall task for both Olson and Rice, but Ferguson isn't counting either of them out even if they do lose that first-round match, after watching both fight through the loser-out bracket and several matches to qualify for state.
"Megan and Karissa are state newcomers but by this time in the season they are veteran players," Ferguson said. "That was evident by how tough and gutsy they were at the divisional tournament. People just don't understand what it took for them to do what they did mentally this past weekend. If that toughness is there again this weekend, they will be key to how far this team goes."
Havre's best player, Amy McLain, has drawn Whitefish's No. 3, Taylor Beach, in the first round. McLain is coming off her second straight Central A divisional title and is a definite state title contender, along with Paulson, Fey, Dillon's Eve Xantopolous and Billings Central's Shannon Hatzel.
"Amy is not a secret to anyone anymore," Ferguson said. "She has emerged as one of the top singles players in the state of Montana.
"There will be some very stiff competition in the singles bracket this year, especially with the transfer of Dani Paulson and the return of Allison Fey," he added. "But Amy is night and day as a player from where she was on this weekend a year ago. The important thing for Amy is to just go out and play her style of tennis, no matter who is across from the net from her."
Havre qualified only one doubles team in Steph Flatau and Keelie Solomon, but the sophomore duo shocked a lot people last year by finishing fourth as freshmen. They will open up with the Hammon twins, Anna Rose and Hailey, from Miles City. The Hammons, Miles City's No. 1 team, finished third at the Eastern A divisional.
"Because of what happened last year, Steph and Keelie put a lot of pressure on themselves this season and I have tried to take some of that off," Ferguson said. "People forget sometimes that they are only sophomores. They will have a very tough road this weekend only because of how many good doubles teams there are.
"Without a doubt, the girls doubles bracket is the strongest of the four events. Still, they are playing very well right now and if they continue that type of tennis, they will be right there."
Still, the biggest target will be the Pony boys because of their past domination.
"When you have a streak going like that, nothing is ever easy," Ferguson said. "I have tried to not put any undue pressure on these kids because at this point we can only control how good we are and not what other schools do or how good their players are. Our goals have not changed. These kids want to keep what is theirs."
The Class A State Tennis Tournament got under way this morning in Lewistown and will continue through Saturday afternoon.