By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
At any high school sports practice the amount of idle chatter throughout is mind numbing. Whether it is who is going out with whom, or who is breaking up with whom. But for the Havre High tennis team the talk around the courts has been vastly different.
With the Central A Divisional tennis tournament opening today in Lewistown, the talk at HHS practice has been about the tournament, but not necessarily in a good way at times.
The Havre High boys team's aspirations for a sixth straight state title were dealt a serious blow when senior Daine Solomon decided to leave the team early this week
Solomon, who is one of the state's top baseball prospects, was invited to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays pre-draft scouting camp in Seattle next weekend - the same weekend as the Class A State tournament. Solomon chose to follow his baseball dreams and left the team, leaving Havre without one of its top two singles players in its lineup.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Solomon's absence is a major loss. But head coach George Ferguson hopes there is little or any psychological ramifications.
"The kids are obviously a little bit disappointed right now," Ferguson said. "They know that Daine was an integral part in our overall plan of winning another state championship. But we have to move on. Our younger kids need to step up and play well."
Indeed, it's not like the cupboard is completely bare. Havre still has two-time defending state champion Kyle Baltrusch at No. 1 while Chase Castloo will move to No. 2, Scott Miller to No. 3 and Ryan Kinholt to No. 4
Baltrusch retook the No. 1 spot back from Solomon about two weeks ago and has been looking very sharp as of late. He brings a 15-4 record into Lewistown and is the odds-on favorite to win another divisional title.
"Honestly, I don't see anyone beating Kyle," Ferguson said. "He's a big match player. And really feeds off these type of situations He's been there more times than anyone."
Castloo is brings an 8-4 record into the tournament and is very capable of advancing to the state meet.
"Chase has as much talent as anyone in the tournament," Ferguson said "It's just a matter of him putting every thing together and playing consistently."
Miller is 7-7 on the season while Kinholt's varsity experience is limited to a 3-0 record on the season. However, the absence of Solomon will actually help Castloo and Miller at the divisional.
"By moving up to No. 2 and No. 3, Chase and Scott will actually have better tournament draws," Ferguson said. "They won't have to play as tough kids right away. The road is a little smoother for them."
The boys doubles division should be a walk in the park for the duo of Gary Wagner and Marc Mariani. The team brings a 16-1 record into the tournament and should have little trouble winning their second divisional crown.
"It would take a minor catastrophe for Gary and Marc not to win the doubles," Ferguson said. "What I really want from them and Kyle is just to play hard and try to stay sharp and use this to prepare for state."
Havre's other two doubles teams of Coda Tchida and Billy Wagner, and John Christian and Lucas Hamilton also have good chances placing.
"If all our kids play well, than we have a legitimate chance of getting nine kids to the state tournament," Ferguson said. "Our goal is to obviously win a sixth-straight divisional title, but we need to qualify as many kids as we can for state."
The divisional title really should take care of itself. Havre is really only competing against Lewistown and Butte Central for the title. And despite the recent changes this week, Ferguson has been reminding his team that this week isn't the state tournament.
"This week is divisionals and that's all I want them focusing on," he said. "We can't worry about who is or who isn't playing at state. We need to focus on the task at hand."
While the HHS boys went through a major lineup overhaul, the Havre girls biggest concern this week is the tough competition they will face today in Lewistown.
Unlike the boys division, the Central A girls division is absolutely loaded with solid players and good teams. What it basically boils down to is a three-team race between Havre, Lewistown and perennial power Livingston.
"The girls is a whole different story," Ferguson said. "It's going to be a three-way dogfight. It's going to be a very, very close and may come down a consolation match on Saturday afternoon."
If one team is favored over the rest it may be Livingston because of its past success. The Rangers have won the divisional title the past four seasons and bring a solid squad to the tournament.
However, Havre defeated Livingston in dual action earlier this season which Ferguson hopes will give his team some confidence.
"Beating Livingston in the dual was big for out team, but this isn't a dual and other teams will have good players out there competing," he said. "This isn't just about playing Livingston."
Indeed, Lewistown has a very good team with a pair of solid doubles teams.
The doubles portion of the tournament will be extremely competitive as Havre's No. 1 team of Keelie Solomon and Steph Flatau will face quality opponents all weekend. Solomon and Flatau, who finished the regular season with a 19-4 record, will definitely see Livingston's No. 1 team of Agnes Kesting and Meghan Foote, who they defeated earlier this season. Lewistown's No. 1 team of Devin Nelson and Alira Carpenter and the No. 2 team of Shaylynn Conroy and Caitlin Flament have both beaten Solomon and Flatau this season.
"The girls doubles is so tough," Ferguson said. "Steph and Keelie feel pretty good about their chances. They've played all of the top teams this season so they at least know what to expect."
Havre's No. 2 team of Kari Gorder and Kristin Hollingshead (8-17) and the No. 3 team of Jocelyn Chagnon and Molly Proctor (9-15) will be getting their first taste of postseason competition against some very good teams.
"The big thing for them is to just get out there and compete against good competition," Ferguson said.
Part of the reason that the doubles draw is so tough is that many teams know that Havre's Amy McLain is a lock for the championship match.
"After Amy won the divisional title in such dominant fashion last season, a lot of the other teams loaded up their doubles because they knew that Amy would be back this season," Ferguson said.
McLain brings a stellar 24-1 record to divisionals and barring some unforeseen mishap, the junior should win her second-straight title.
"Amy is playing with a lot of confidence," Ferguson said. "She has been playing so consistently all season."
But it won't just be McLain scoring points for Havre. The Ponies' No. 2 and No. 3 players - Megan Rice and Karissa Olson - will also be a contenders. Rice is 19-8 on the season, while Olson is 17-9. One of the two could even square off against McLain for the title.
"We're going to score the bulk of our team points in the singles," Ferguson said. "Megan or Karissa could very easily be playing Amy for the title if they play well. I also think that Katy Dow is going to score us some points at the No. 4 spot."
Unseating Livingston as the divisional champ will be tough, but not impossible.
"I think if we have a good day we can qualify anywhere from four to seven girls for state," Ferguson said. "And if we have a really good day, we just might that girls title. It would take some good performances, but I think our girls are ready."
The Central A Divisional got under way at 9 a.m. this morning and will wrap up late Saturday afternoon.