By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editorfirstname.lastname@example.org
BILLINGS - There was talk. Not loud talk, but just loud enough to be heard.
Maybe, just maybe, with all the adversity of losing one of its top players and the increased competition around the state, this would be the year that the Havre boys tennis team's domination of Class A would finally end.
In the end, it was nothing more than talk. And the Ponies did their talking on the court, albeit different courts in different towns.
With weather ending play early on Friday in Lewistown, the tourney was moved to Billings on Saturday to be concluded.
Neither the 4:30 a.m. wake-up call on Saturday nor the change of venue bothered the Ponies as they scored 36 points while grabbing both the singles and doubles titles and winning an astounding fifth consecutive Class A state tennis tournament. Whitefish finished a distant second with 21 team points.
"This team title was not as easy as the final team totals might indicate," said first-year head coach George Ferguson. "Boys singles is starting to really get competitive in Class A, and there are some very good young tennis players around the state. But our kids were prepared and they were determined and focused. Their goal all season was to win a fifth consecutive state championship and they went out and did that."
Havre junior Kyle Baltrusch continued his own personal mastery of the singles, winning his third straight singles title with a 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 win over Whitefish senior Scott McCracken.
Early on, Baltrusch appeared to be cruising to his third title, rolling through the first set with ease. But in the second set, problems with his first serve allowed McCracken to sneak back into the match.
"I think I kind of lost focus there," Baltrusch said. "It looked like it would be an easy road to the title and I took it and I let him back in the match."
In the third and final set, Baltrusch had to temper his aggressiveness some against McCracken's finesse game. It's not a style he likes to play, but he plugged away to win the set and the match.
"I had to play his game to win," Baltrusch said. "It's hard for me to put any pace on a ball that doesn't have any power behind it. I just kind of had to pick my spots."
Indeed, Baltrusch broke McCracken's serve early and hit enough quality winners to take the title.
"He dug deep to pull that match out," Ferguson said. "He beat two quality opponents in his final matches."
In the semifinals, Baltrusch made it look easy against Hamilton's Tim Shonkwiler, slamming backhand winners and limiting unforced errors in a 6-3, 6-1 win.
"I don't think people really fully understand just what Kyle has accomplished over the last three years," Ferguson said. "He is only the second player ever in Class A tennis to win three straight singles titles. Kyle is a very special tennis player and it has been a pleasure to watch him do what he has done this season. It is also scary to think that he has another full season of high school tennis left to play."
For Baltrusch, though, the singles title was just a bonus to the real goal, which was winning yet another team title.
"The main thing wasn't to win another singles title," he said. "Yes, I wanted to win it, but the whole focus was on the team title."
Teammates Marc Mariani and Gary Wagner played a large role in that title. After finishing second last year, Wagner and Mariani won their first state doubles title in convincing fashion with a 6-0, 6-0 win over Niklas Dalferth and Matt Iba of Glendive in the finals.
"We wanted this pretty bad," Wagner said. "I knew we could do it if we played like we know how. We've been playing well all season, and the championship match was the best we played all tournament."
The only thing that slowed down the duo was some gastrointestinal issues. With Mariani battling flu-like symptoms early on Saturday morning, they were pushed to a tiebreaker set in the quarterfinal win.
"I felt terrible," Mariani said. "I couldn't hardly stand up straight, but Wagner stepped up and carried us through the set."
With the stomach issues gone, Wagner and Mariani lost only two games the rest of the way.
"Marc and Gary continued Havre's double domination at the state state tournament," Ferguson said. "They actually played some pretty solid teams en route to their first state championship. But they just played amazing tennis from start to finish, and no one in that field was going to give them any trouble because of how good they were playing."
Still, Havre's success didn't just come from the trio of title winners. To take a state title, you have to get some wins in the early rounds, and No. 2 singles player Chase Castloo and the No. 2 doubles team of Billy Wagner and Coda Tchida also contributed to the Ponies' success.
Castloo defeated Hardin's Andrew Walker, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 in the first match before losing to McCracken in the quarterfinals. Castloo was eliminated by Brunno Rossi of Whitefish in the loser-out bracket.
Tchida and Billy Wagner lost a tough opening match to Andy Dykstra and Brett Vandenberg of Polson 6-2, 2-6, 6-1. But the duo battled back in the consolation bracket, winning two more matches before being eliminated.
"One of the really nice things about this state championship is that all the kids scored points for us," Ferguson said. "Coda and Billy won a couple of critical matches and Chase Castloo scored a big win in the first round. Depth is so important at a state tournament, and those kids certainly provided it for us. They also got a big taste of what things are like at this level and that will only make them better tennis players for the future."
The HHS boys weren't the only people bringing home hardware. The Pony girls finished a respectable third in the girls team race with 16 team points. Western A power Whitefish had 29, while Dillon finished with 27.
"Coming into this weekend we knew that the girls tournament would be very tough," Ferguson said. "So, to get third place is a great accomplishment for our team. Whitefish and Dillon were much deeper than we were, but we had some very gutsy performances from our kids, and they fought right to the end of the tournament to get that trophy. It means a lot to our girls program to bring a trophy home from state because it just hasn't happened very often, and I am just so proud of these kids because we set this as our goal at the beginning of the season and they went out and got it done."
Nobody embodied the gutsy performances more than No. 1 singles player Amy McLain and the No. 1 doubles team of Steph Flatau and Keelie Solomon.
McLain finished a very respectable third in the singles, defeating Dillon's Even Xanthopolous for the third time this season. But it was her match against Montana's top high school player, Dani Paulson of Whitefish, in the semifinals that was the talk of the tournament.
Paulson, a highly touted transfer from California, came into the tourney with a perfect 27-0 record, having not lost a set all season.
But that changed in the semis. McLain battled Paulson shot for shot, with each player breaking the other's serve early and often in the first set. McLain finally wore down Paulson, taking the first set 7-6 with the tiebreaker. Paulson showed her mettle in the second set, rolling to a 6-1 win.
The third set proved to be a fight like the first. Paulson jumped out to a 3-1 lead, only to see McLain battle back again and again to send the set into the tiebreaker. In the tiebreaker, McLain had three match points but could never put Paulson away, and fell 7-6 in the final set.
"Amy had one of the most amazing Saturdays in state tournament history, as far as I am concerned," Ferguson said. "She took the tournament favorite and eventual state champion Dani Paulson to the brink in the semifinals in one of the best matches I have seen. No one had even come close to beating Paulson all season and Amy took her right down to the wire. It was one of the gutsiest performances tennis fans will ever see."
To come so close to pulling off an upset was definitely heartbreaking for McLain, but she showed little residual effects, defeating a pair of tough opponents in Billings Central's Shannon Hatzell and Xanthopolous to finish third, with a 34-2 record on the season.
"What is even more amazing about Amy is how she came back from that loss," Ferguson said. "Somehow she found a way to fight through the mental disappointment of losing such a draining match, as well as the physical toll that three-hour match took on her. Amy's third-place finish clinched a trophy for our team. It takes a player with a lot of heart and character to do what she did this weekend."
Perhaps no players on Havre's team were more affected by the rough weather and change of venues than Flatau and Solomon.
The duo was in the middle of its first-round match when the skies opened up in Lewistown, forcing cancellation of Friday's play. The duo was forced to finish that first-round match on Saturday and ended up playing a total of six matches on the day, finishing fourth with a 4-2 record. Both of their losses came against Western A divisional champions Val Aman and Jen Orchard. It was the second straight year that Flatau and Solomon placed fourth in the doubles.
"I know they were a little disappointed because they had higher expectations for themselves coming in," Ferguson said. "But they pulled out some very big matches, and we needed every one of them to finish third."
Havre's other girls competitors, Megan Rice and Karissa Olson, finished 0-2, but faced very tough competition in each of their matches. With the bulk of his girls team returning, Ferguson is optimistic about the future.
"There was a lot of question marks about our girls team coming into this year," he said. "We really came on strong at the end of the season. We have a solid JV foundation built and we have all 10 of our varsity girls coming back. I think that we have emerged as one of the stronger teams for the next few years."
But the day still belonged to the Pony boys, who also return the bulk of their team. It was tough to get them to make any predictions for the future, mainly because they were busy savoring the moment.
"Having people say that we might not win just made us all play even harder," Wagner said.
"It was a huge motivation for us and it made us even stronger in the end," Mariani echoed.
Said Baltrusch: "It just made it that much sweeter. Losing Daine (Solomon to baseball) a week before divisionals was a detriment to our chances. But we tried to just go on and not lose focus on what our goal was. We just stuck to our plan and everyone stepped up, especially the young guys."
With every member of Havre's varsity returning, a sixth straight title isn't out of the question. But Ferguson was also caught up in the moment.
"This has been a tremendous season for our boys program," Ferguson said. "All of the kids in our program understand that they're part of something special that has been built over the course of the last half decade. As a coach, you just want to see your players succeed, and success can mean many different things. I think all of our kids that were out for tennis this year enjoyed success in one way or another.
"As far as winning the state championship, I have to give the kids all the credit. You can teach them things and prepare them as best you can, but tennis is won on the court and these kids went out and did it themselves."
State A tennis
Havre 36, Whitefish 21, Glendive 17, Corvallis 9, Miles City 9, Billings Central 8, Polson 8, Hamilton 6, Bigfork 3, Stevensville 1, Butte Central 0, Lewistown 0.
First Round - Kyle Buckley, GLE, def. Gustaf Lindgren, LEW, 6-2, 6-2; Tim Shonkwiler, HAM def. Brian Dubuque, POL, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5; Myles Embelton, HAM def. Laine Averill, BF, 7-5, 6-1; Kyle Baltrusch, HAV, def. Dan Safty, GLE, 6-1, 6-2; Colin Fehr, COR def. Brunno Rossi, WF, 7-6, (9-7), 6-1; Drew Orcutt, GLE, def. Nick Siddoway, BC, 6-2, 6-0; Chase Castloo, HAV, def. Andrew Wagner, HAR, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4; Scott McCracken, WF, def. Abe McCormick, STE, 6-2, 7-5.
Quarterfinals - Shonkwiler, HAM, def. Buckley, GLE, 6-2, 6-3; Baltrusch, HAV, def. Embelton, HAM, 6-0, 6-4; Fehr, COR def. Orcutt, GLE, 6-4, 6-2; McCracken, WF, def. Castloo, HAV, 6-2, 6-1.
Semifinals - Baltrusch, HAV, def. Shonkwiler, HAM, 6-3, 6-1; McCracken, WF, def. Fehr, COR, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1.
Championship - Baltrusch, HAV, def. McCracken, WF, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3.
First-round consolation - Dubuque, POL, def. Lindgren, LEW, 10-6; Averil, BF def. Safty, GLE, 10-2; Rossi, WF, def. Siddoway, BC, by forfeit; McCormick, STE, def. Wagner, HAR, 11-10, (10-3).
Second-round consolation - Dubuque, POL, def. Embelton, HAM, 10-3; Averil, BF, def. Buckley, GLE, 10-2; Rossi, WF, def. Castloo, HAV, 10-4; McCormick, STE, def. Orcutt, GLE, 10-4.
Consolation quarters - Averil, Big def. Dubuque, POL, 10-8; Rossi, WF, def. McCormick, STE, 10-3.
Consolation semifinals - Fehr, COR def. Averil, BF, 10-4; Rossi, WF, def. Shonkwiler, HAM, 11-9.
Third place - Fehr, COR def. Rossi, WF, 6-2, 6-2.
First Round - Iba-Dalferth, GLE, def. Hoffman-Hooten, COR, 6-2, 6-2; Klein-York, POL, def. Richter-Gruenner, LEW, 6-0, 7-6, (7-5); Dykstra-Vandenberg, POL, def. Tchida-Wagner, HAV, 6-2, 2-6, 6-1; Flotkoetter-Miller, MC def. Bradshaw-Packer, STE, 6-3, 6-2; Miles-Wolstein, BF, def. Braine-Peterschick, LEW, 6-4, 6-0; Rickett-Oakland, BC def. Renstrom-Stephens, STE, 7-5, 6-4; Cook-Girolami, BC def. Richardson-Fehr, COR, 7-5, 6-0; Mariani-Wagner, HAV, def. Fern-Opatz, WF, 6-0, 6-1.
Quarterfinals - Iba-Dalferth, GLE, def. Klein-York, POL, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1; Dykstra-Vandenberg, POL, def. Flotkoetter-Miller, MC, 3-6, 6-0, 6-2; Miles-Wolstein, BF def. Rickett-Oakland, BC, 6-2, 6-3; Mariani-Wagner, HAV, def. Cook-Girolami, BC, 6-0, 7-5.
Semifinals - Iba-Dalferth, GLE, def. Dykstra-Vandenberg, POL, 6-3, 6-4; Mariani-Wagner, HAV, def. Miles-Wolstein, BF, 6-0, 6-2.
Championship - Mariani-Wagner, HAV, def. Iba-Dalferth, GLE, 6-0, 6-0.
First round consolation - Richter-Gruenner, LEW, def. Hoffman-Hooten, COR, 11-9; Tchida-Wagner, HAV, def. Bradshaw-Packer, STE, 10-8; Renstrom-Stevens, STE, def. Braine-Peterschick, LEW, 10-8; Fem-Opatz, WF, def. Richardson-Fehr, COR, 10-6.
Second round consolation - Miller-Flotkoetter, MC def. Richter-Gruenner, LEW, 10-1; Tchida-Wagner, HAV, def. Klein-York, POL, 10-7; Cook-Girolami, BC def. Renstrom-Stevens, STE, 10-6; Fem-Opatz, WF, def. Rickett-Oakland, BC, 11-10, (7-5).
Consolation quarters - Miller-Flotkoetter, MC def. Tchida-Wagner, HAV, 10-6; Cook-Girolami, BC def. Fem-Opatz, WF, 10-6.
Consolation semi-finals - Miller-Flotkoetter, MC def. Miles-Wolstein, BF, 10-7; Cook-Girolami, BC, 11-10, (8-6).
Third place - Miller-Flotkoetter, MC def. Cook-Girolami, BC, 6-1, 6-4.
Whitefish 29, Dillon 27, Havre 16, Lewistown 15, Polson 10, Corvallis 7, Livingston 6, Billings Central 5, Hamilton 3, Bigfork 2, Miles City 1, Glendive 0, Butte Central 0.
First round - Shannon Hatzell, BC, def. Audrey Bames, HAM, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2; Allison Fey, WF, def. Megan Rice, HAV, 6-2, 6-2; Ashley Angle, LIV, def. Kaia Lock, BF, 6-2, 6-4; Eve Xanthopoulos, DIL, def. Laura Housinger, BC, 6-1, 6-2; Dani Paulson, WF, def. Karissa Olson, HAV, 6-0, 6-1; Bea Rosensvard, COR, def. Denali Knudson, HAR, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3; Morgan Maul-Smith, COR, def. Cassie Hodges, HAR, 6-1, 6-2; Amy McLain, HAV, def. Taylor Beach, WF, 6-1, 6-0.
Quarterfinals - Fey, WF, def. Hatzell, BC, 7-6 (10-8), 6-3; Xanthopoulos, DIL, def. Angle, LIV, 6-0, 6-0; Paulson, WF, def. Rosensvard, COR, 6-0, 6-0; McLain, HAV, def. Maul-Smith, COR, 6-4, 6-2.
Semifinals - Fey, WF, def. Xanthopoulos, DIL, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3; Paulson, WF, def. McLain, HAV, 6-7 (8-5), 6-1, 7-6 (8-6).
Championship - Paulson, WF, def. Fey, WF, 6-1, 6-2.
First-round consolation - Bames, HAM, def. Rice, HAV, 10-1; Housinger, BC, def. Lock, BF, 10-7; Knudson, HAR, def. Olson, HAV, 10-4; Hodges, HAR, def. Beach, WF, 10-2.
Second-round consolation - Angle, LIV, def. Bames, HAM, 11-10 (10-6); Hatzell, BC, def. Housinger, BC, 10-3; Maul-Smith, COR, def. Knudson, HAR, 10-1; Rosensvard, COR, def. Hodges, HAR, 10-3.
Consolation quarterfinals - Hatzell, BC, def. Angle, LIV, 10-3; Rosenvard, COR, def. Maul-Smith, COR, 10-2.
Consolation semifinals - McLain, HAV, def. Hatzell, BC, 11-9; Xanthopoulos, DIL, def. Rosensvard, COR, 10-1.
Third place - McLain, HAV, def. Xanthopoulos, DIL, 6-4, 6-3.
First round - Conroy-Flament, LEW, def. Lordeman-Holden, GLE, 7-5, 6-3; Godecke-Bennett, DIL, def. Fredricks-Marcilla, CF, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4; Smith-Trembath, BF, def. Schallenberger-Conwell, HAM, 6-1, 6-3; Carpenter-Nelson, LEW, def. Nielsen-Linn, GLE, 6-2, 6-3; Stoddard-Monaco, DIL, def. Ho-Stark, POL, 6-0, 6-1; Foote-Kesting, LIV, def. Rogers-Bowers, HAR, 6-0, 6-1; Flatau-Solomon, HAV, def. Hammon-Hammon, MC, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2; Aman-Orchard, POL, def. Johnson-Squires, COR, 6-0, 6-3.
Quarterfinals - Godecke-Bennett, DIL, def. Conroy-Flament, LEW, 7-5, 6-7 (7-5), 6-0; Carpenter-Nelson, LEW, def. Smith-Trembath, BF, 6-4, 6-2; Stoddard-Monaco, DIL, def. Foote-Kesting, LIV, 6-0, 6-1; Aman-Orchard, POL, def. Flatau-Solomon, HAV, 7-6 (7-2), 2-6, 6-2.
Semifinals - Carpenter-Nelson, LEW, def. Godecke-Bennett, DIL, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4; Stoddard-Monaco, DIL, def. Aman-Orchard, POL, 6-4, 6-4.
Championship - Stoddard-Monaco, DIL, def. Carpenter-Nelson, LEW, 6-1, 6-1.
First round consolation - Fredricks-Marcille, CF, def. Lordemann-Holden, GLE, 10-3; Schallenberger-Conwell, HAM, def. Nielson-Linn, GLE, 10-5; Ho-Stark, POL, def. Rogers-Bowers, HAR, 10-6; Hammon-Hammon, MC, def. Johnson-Squires, COR, 10-8.
Second round consolation - Fredricks-Marcille, CF, def. Smith-Trembath, BF, 10-8; Schallenberger-Conwell, HAM, def. Conroy-Flament, LEW, 10-7; Flatau-Solomon, HAV, def. Ho-Stark, POL, 10-5; Foote-Kesting, LIV, def. Hammon-Hammon, MC, 10-4.
Consolation quarterfinals - Fredricks-Marcille, CF, def. Schallenberger-Conwell, HAM, 10-7; Flatau-Solomon, HAV, def. Foote-Kesting, LIV, 10-6.
Consolation semifinals - Aman-Orchard, POL, def. Fredricks-Marcille, CF, score not reported; Flatau-Solomon, HAV, def. Godecke-Bennett, DIL, score not reported.
Third place - Aman-Orchard, POL, def. Flatau-Solomon, HAV, 6-1, 6-3.