Havre Daily News Sports Editor
A quick question: Where is the best tennis in the state of Montana being played? Nope, not in Billings or Missoula. It's right here in Havre.
The Havre High tennis team outplayed and outperformed a series of Class AA opponents in dual matches at this weekend's Great Falls Invitational tennis tournament.
The Pony boys finished with a sparkling 4-0 record, including a dramatic 5-2 win over Class AA's No. 1 team Billings Senior. The Pony girls were also solid, finishing 2-2 on the weekend, losing to Class AA defending state champ Bozeman and AA title contender Billings Senior.
"Overall, I was really happy with both of our teams' performance this weekend," said Havre High head coach George Ferguson. "We had to play in some of the worst conditions we have seen this season, and every player on our team went out there and gave everything they had against some great competition."
The six-time defending state champion Pony boys have relished the opportunity to play AA competition this season, and responded with some of their best tennis.
"Obviously, this was a great weekend for our boys program," Ferguson said. "These kids take a lot of pride in what they do and they certainly showed it in the four duals we won this weekend."
Havre opened the tournament with a 6-1 trouncing of Great Falls High as No. 1 singles player Kyle Baltrusch defeated the Bison's No. 1 player Spencer Grey 8-7 with a 10-8 win in the tiebreaker. It was a big win for Baltrusch, who lost to Grey last week in dual action.
Chase Castloo and Scott Miller rolled to easy singles wins.
In the doubles, Havre swept the Bison, as the teams of Marc Mariani and Gary Wagner and Coda Tchida and Billy Wagner won handily. The team of Patch Wirtzberger and Lucas Hamilton also scored a hardfought 8-7 win in the No. 3 doubles match over Great Falls' Austin Davis and Tyler Hessler.
The Ponies wrapped up Friday's play with a sound 5-2 victory over the Bozeman Hawks. Baltrusch scored another grueling victory, this time over Brian Bosche. Chase Castloo and Scott Miller also finished the day undefeated. In doubles, Gary Wagner and Mariani and John Christian and Hamilton scored wins.
"Both of Kyle's wins on Friday required him to play really smart and tough tennis," Ferguson said. "He did that to perfection. It was a lot of fun to watch."
On Saturday, the Ponies pasted Butte High 7-0, which set up the final showdown against Billings Senior. Havre beat the ballyhooed Broncs 5-2 in thrilling fashion. Baltrusch stayed undefeated for the weekend with an 8-2 win over Brian LeSeur. Castloo also finished undefeated with an 8-1 win over Nick Huang. Ryan Kinholt picked up his second win on the weekend with an 8-7 win over Andrew Harkless.
"Our singles players all had great weekends," Ferguson said. "Scott Miller and Ryan Kinholt both won very important come-from-behind matches in different duals and they both played well. Chase Castloo looked really strong again and is playing some of the best tennis I have seen him play yet.
"And what can you say about Kyle? Going undefeated as a No. 1 singles player in a Class AA tournament speaks for itself. Not only is his game coming on right now, but he is just so mentally tough."
The doubles featured a showdown of tennis powers as Mariani and Gary Wagner asserted their dominance with an emotional 8-7 win over Sean Harris and Adam Decker. Harris is widely considered the best player in the state, while Decker is also very talented.
"Marc and Gary also got two stern tests this weekend and they played some great doubles against those quality opponents," Ferguson said. "In the final match of the tournament against Senior, both of them came up with some big shots when the match was on the line. They were just very focused and composed. it was a really nice win for them and I think they are going to be very difficult to beat the rest of this season."
Tchida and Billy Wagner finished the weekend with a 3-1 record, scoring an 8-3 win over Jon Pavlish and Tyler Moses.
"Coda and Billy also played really well," Ferguson said. "They had some tough matches and they looked very sharp. They have both improved a lot this season and now they are becoming a strong force in doubles and that only makes us that much better of a team overall."
With four wins over Class AA opponents, the Ponies would have to be considered the team to beat in all of Montana tennis.
"The wins over Bozeman and Senior were especially satisfying for this team," Ferguson said. "Those are the two best teams in Class AA and we beat both of them pretty handily. It is a testament to how well these kids on this team play and how motivated they are to go out and be the best they can be every time they step on the court."
While the Pony boys were stealing much of the spotlight, the Pony girls quietly went about their business putting together a solid weekend.
"Our girls had an up-and-down weekend as far as results, but that doesn't mean they played poorly at all," Ferguson said. "It is hard to convince them of that sometimes, because they are so competitive. But I don't think the scores against Bozeman or Senior indicate how good our girls team is or how well we are playing right now."
Havre opened the tourney with a 5-2 win over Great Falls High. Senior Amy McLain rolled to an easy win over former teammate Katy Dow, while sister Hailey, won her match at No. 4 singles with an 8-2 win over Taylor Perry. The Ponies swept the doubles portion as Steph Flatau and Keelie Solomon dominated their match, while the No. 2 team of Kari Gorder and Kristi Hollingshead and the No. 3 team of Jocelyn Chagnon and Alexa Lipp won close matches.
In the afternoon, the two-time defending state champion Bozeman Hawks roughed up the Ponies 6-1. Senior Megan Rice was Havre's lone winner, with a solid 8-6 win over Aubrie Ler.
"Megan had a great win on Friday, because that is a girl she has come close to beating several times," Ferguson said. "I was really happy for her that she got over the hump in what will be the last time she every probably sees Ler."
On Saturday, the Ponies picked up a 4-3 win over Butte. Amy McLain bounced back with an 8-3 win over Johnna Beatty. Christen Kittelson picked up her first win of the weekend with an 8-6 win over Abby Faucet. Hailey McLain picked up an 8-4 win over Kaila Sullivan. In doubles, Flatau and Solomon scored an 8-7 win over Ashley Roeganstan and Kelsey Manchester.
In the final match of the tournament, Billings Senior worked over the Ponies 6-1. The Broncs were picked to contend with Bozeman for the AA team title and lived up to that prediction.
Freshman phenom Missy Harris defeated Amy McLain to lead the Broncs to a sweep of the singles matches. Havre's lone win came from Flatau and Solomon, who defeated Sara Johnson and Rikki Peach 8-6.
"Steph and Keelie also had a very good overall weekend," Ferguson said. "They played three very solid teams and won two very close matches. I am really pleased to see how good they are starting to play, and when they win the close ones or tiebreakers, that is a really good sign of things to come."
But the overall result wasn't as important to Ferguson as the level of play his team competed against.
"Amy and Megan were both up against some fierce competition and they played good tennis," he said. "Hailey McLain is another player on our girls team that had a very good week. She and Alexa Lipp played some good doubles matches together and we also used her in a couple singles matches. She is looking very tough for a freshman and has really become a big asset to our team."
Havre will be facing Class AA competition again this weekend, when it travels to the Billings Invitational on Friday.