By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
If you compare the Havre High tennis team to a boat, the last thing a new coach would want to do is rock it. For new Blue Pony tennis head coach George Ferguson, the main thing is just keep things going in the right direction as the Ponies open the season at the Cut Bank Invitational on Saturday.
Ferguson replaces Sam Dierman, who has built Pony tennis into one of the most successful programs in Class A tennis. Dierman had coached the Ponies for 13 years, leading them to unprecedented success with five boys state championships, including four straight coming into this season.
Ferguson was part of the birth of that success, playing varsity all four years of high school and qualifying for the state tournament in each year. He was part of the foundation of the success and knows continuing it won't be easy.
"I really have some big shoes to fill," Ferguson said. "Sam was almost solely responsible for building the program into what it is. It really started out when Kirk Miller was the head coach, but when Sam took over, he really turned it into a consistent winner. All you have to do is look at the trophy case in the high school to see the success."
There is always some transition with a new coach. However, that transition has been eased with the multitude of talent returning, highlight by a loaded boys' squad
"It definitely makes the transition easier by the simple fact that the boys team is so deep and I don't have to worry about the building process," Ferguson said. "Even our freshmen are pretty experienced. It's really put us ahead of schedule with the boys."
Deep might be an understatement. The Pony boys are about the surest bet to make it five straight state titles, as sure as Rocky Balboa was to win in Rocky 2.
The Ponies return four players with state tournament experience led by two time defending Class A singles champion Kyle Baltrusch.
However, Ferguson points out it is the loss of one player that changes the dynamic of the boys team. With the graduation of Jeremy Henninger, the team shifts from a deep doubles team to a deep singles team.
Henninger partnered with Daine Solomon last season to win the Class A doubles title. This year Solomon will be the No. 2 singles player behind Baltrusch with Chase Castloo at No. 3 and Lucas Hamilton at No. 4.
"It really creates more depth in the singles," Ferguson said. "Kyle is very focused and has high expectations for himself. Daine will make things more interesting. He's really surprised me the most at how good he really is. Chase also has the potential to be a very good tennis player."
Even with the shift in depth from singles to doubles, it doesn't mean that the doubles will be weak. In fact, the boys doubles should be very strong, particularly the junior duo of Gary Wagner and Marc Mariani.
Wagner and Mariani lost to Henninger and Solomon in last year's state championship match. With a year of varsity experience under their belt, the duo is expected to take the title this season.
"Doubles is where you win or lose team titles," Ferguson said. "Gary and Marc kind of had the luxury of knowing Daine and Jeremy would rack up points. They were a little under the radar last year. This year they are the favorites, so they have to raise their level because people will be coming after them."
The rest of the doubles teams may change from week to week as Ferguson will experiment with some different looks.
This week, the No. 2 team will consist of junior Coda Tchida and freshman Billy Wagner, while No. 3 team was supposed to be John Christian and Jordan Croft. However, Croft will be gone for the District Music Festival, so Ferguson will use Austin Small, Scott Miller and Ryan Kinholt in his place.
Even with his team being the prohibitive favorite, Ferguson also must keep his players' egos in check a little.
"As a young coach, that's my biggest balancing act," he said "In tennis, you have to be confident, but at the same time, I can't allow these kids to assume that the state championship trophy is going to be waiting there for them on a silver platter."
Although the girls team isn't the perennial power the boys team is, the Blue Pony girls are coming off one of their best performances in program history last season, finishing fourth at the state tournament.
The Ponies return three key players from last year's team led by junior No. 1 singles player Amy McLain.
McLain finished tied for fifth with teammate Crystal Pyrak last season at state. Pyrak has since graduated, but McLain returns as one of the top singles players in Class A and a favorite to contend for a prestigious state singles title.
"Amy and a girl from Whitefish would have to be the two favorites," Ferguson said. "I've been really happy with her so far. She is so competitive and practices very hard. Amy wants to get better every day. She's set some lofty goals and is working hard to achieve them."
Joining McLain in the singles is Megan Rice as the No. 2 player with Karissa Olson playing the No. 3.
"Megan has plenty of varsity experience and knows what playing at that level is all about," Ferguson said. "Karissa is one of the most improved players in the program."
The No. 4 singles position is still up for grabs. Ferguson is still having girls playing challenge matches for it with Kristen Kittelson, Samantha Boucher, Riche Wilson, Jordan Toner, Angie Maxwell and Katy Dow all vying for the remaining varsity singles spot.
The girls doubles portion is led by a pair of relative veterans in sophomores Keelie Solomon and Steph Flatau.
While one year of experience hardly makes the duo the most experienced in Class A, it was what they accomplished in that one year, that makes them veterans Solomon and Flatau finished fourth at state last season as freshmen and have high expectations this season.
"They were kind of a surprise last year," Ferguson said. "Keelie had some tennis experience, but Steph really had none and just picked it up quickly. They gelled at the right time last year and played great."
Ferguson won't be waiting for Solomon and Flatau to gel at state. He expects them to play solid right away.
"They understand what it takes to be successful," he said. "They're practicing hard. They know its in the doubles where Havre has been held back in winning team titles. They have a big challenge ahead of them, but they definitely have the potential to be very good."
The remaining two doubles teams of Kari Gorder and Kristi Hollingshead and Jocelyn Chagnon and Molly Procter have little varsity experience.
Ferguson hopes they can learn and improve on the fly this season. He will also experiment with different lineups and looks to try and find the best lineup for the girls.
"A lot of the girls still have to see what varsity tennis is all about," Ferguson said. "We are going to do everything to try and find the best combinations we can."
As for this weekend's Cut Bank Invitational, Ferguson has differing hopes.
'The meet is actually a quadrangular with us, Cut Bank, Conrad and Lewistown," he said. "We dual each team. For the boys, I expect a little more because they have that experience. One of our goals is to go undefeated in duals this season and I expect to win every dual. For the girls, I just want them to use this to get their feet wet and get some competition because we are dying to play some real matches."
It won't be easy for the boys. The toughest dual will be against four-time defending Class B state champ Cut Bank, which is led by three-time State B champ Keithan Gregg and solid No. 2 singles player in Jeff Lewis. The Wolves also have a good doubles team in Jeff Larson and Matt Lewis.
The Pony boys should have little trouble with other teams. On the girls side, the Ponies will get a challenge from Lewistown, which is led by Shaylynn Conroy, while Cut Bank and Conrad are relatively down this season.
The Cut Bank Invite will be held at the Cut Bank Sports Complex starting at 9:30 a.m.