Story and Photos by Ryan Divish
If you stand there long enough, you should notice him. After all, the kid has won three state singles championships in three years, four divisional singles titles in four years along with four divisional team titles and three state team titles.
But you don't - not at first.
Maybe it would help if he wore all those gold medals around his neck. Because then you could easily pick Kyle Baltrusch out of the mass of boys ripping repetitive forehands, banging backhands and striking serves at a Havre High boys tennis practice.
But, that's the way Kyle likes it.
So, look harder and you will notice the gangly kid, with an ordinary haircut, clad in a nondescript T-shirt and shorts, hitting shots that never seem to come close to hitting the net, always have the proper spin and always land directly where they should.
That's Kyle. That's the kid who started out playing tennis at 9-years old for something to do during the summer after his family moved in to town from their farm. That's the kid with more trophies in the HHS trophy case than entire decades of teams. That's the kid who will try to not only make school history, but possibly Montana tennis history, as he will attempt to become the only boys player to ever win four consecutive state singles titles at the Class A State Tennis Tournament, which starts Thursday in Lewistown.
We have to say its possible Montana tennis history, because there are no exact records. The Montana High School Association doesn't keep track of things like this. Executive director Bill Sprinkle admitted that they should, but they don't.
According to a long Internet search, only two girls have accomplished the feat in Montana history. Rochelle Auer of Billings West won four straight from 1993-1996, while Missoula Sentinel's Ristine Olson won 96 straight matches from 2000 to 2003, including four straight titles.
"I honestly don't think a boy has won four titles in modern era of tennis in Montana," said head coach George Ferguson. "I can't remember anyone ever talking about a boy winning four in a row."
There is a real chance that people will be talking about Kyle after his weekend. It's not something he would be entirely comfortable. This whole story idea was met with a shrug of the shoulders and an unenthusiastic "Why?"
Why? Because this is a big deal, even if he doesn't act like it is. Why? Because winning four titles is more difficult than restringing a tennis racket with your teeth Why? Because apparently, no one in Montana has done this before, and it could be a long time before any one does it again.
"I liken winning four straight singles titles to repeating a championship in any college or professional sport," Ferguson said. "Each year is different from the last and what you did last year means nothing this year. There is different competition and different locations. Because of the success that Kyle built so early, the pressure certainly mounted on him with each passing year."
Way back three years ago, when he was skinny freshman, playing in his first state tournament, there was no pressure on Kyle.
"I remember back when I was a freshman and just hoping to win one divisional or state title in my career," he said. "The competition seemed to be so much better back then. I didn't go in there thinking I was going to win."
But that's exactly what he did. With expectations low for him, Kyle shocked the tournament field, knocking off senior Dustin Frye 7-5, 6-0 in the championship match. Even then, when he had reached his goal of winning his state title in his first try, all he offered was a mild fist pump.
"It was just another match, just another weekend," he offered the Havre Daily News days after the tournament.
Just another match? Just another weekend? No, it was much more. It was the start of something special.
A year later, he defeated teammate Cody McLain 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 in the championship as a sophomore.
"Once you know what it takes to win a title, you gain some confidence," he said.
Last year's state tournament definitely tested his confidence and his mettle. In the championship match, he breezed through the first set 6-1 against Scott McCracken. However, he dropped his second set 4-6 as a few double faults proved costly, while the Whitefish fans heckled Baltrusch mercilessly at times and called for a line judge because of complaints of Baltrusch foot-faulting on serves. Even as one of Class A's coolest customers on the court, he was visibly rattled.
"I hate it when people taunt me during my matches," he said. "It happened last year against Whitefish. I let it get to me."
Yet, he turned the jeers into motivation, winning the third set 6-3 to secure a third title.
"It's easier when the kid your playing does things like that," Baltrusch said. "But when it's fans and parents, it takes my mind off the match. You hear it and your mind isn't in the right place."
It comes with territory of being the best. Players are gunning for you. Their parents hope you lose and fans just want to see you screw up. It's something that Kyle's grown to understand and sometimes embrace. Ferguson marvels at how Kyle copes with it.
"By the time you are a senior the whole tournament is looking at you to see if you can win," Ferguson said. "The pressure is enormous. It is a very difficult task to ask of anyone, but especially a 17-or 18-year-old high school kid."
But really, it's a testament to how Kyle's game has grown in the four years he has played for the Ponies. Ferguson has only coached him two years and can see improvements in every facet.
"Kyle has grown as most tennis players do as they get older, specifically the mental aspects of the game," Ferguson said. "He is now a very intelligent tennis player as well as having an all-around power game. He is very mentally tough. He can win matches even when he doesn't have his 'A' game because of his mental strength. It is a rare gift that not every player possesses."
Knowing you will get every player's best effort every time you step on the court makes a person mentally tough. It has to. Kyle expects every one of his opponents to play above their level and battle him to the end. It's a consequence of being who he is and accomplishing what he has accomplished.
"I hear it when I go out to the court," he admits. "Almost every kid I play knows that I've won three state championships and they bring it up before the match. I think I do have a huge target on my back whenever I step on the court.
I don't want to sound cocky, but what do they have to lose. I'm know they elevate their games as I do. I try to play my game every time. I have to go in thinking they don't stand a chance against me and I've got to take them out."
But even Kyle admits there are times when that mental toughness lessens, allowing opponents to stay in matches and even beat him. Two matches in particular this season come to mind. A rare loss to this year's Class B-C state singles champ Brian McDivitt in the championship of the Havre Invitational and a loss to Great Falls' No. 1 Spencer Gray.
"Losing to McDivitt on prom day is something I regret," he admitted. "It was something that just happened."
As for the loss Gray, Baltrusch redeemed himself a few days later, defeating him in a tournament.
"That's how its been with Spencer," he said. "We play each other in a lot of USTA matches and I think we're about 50-50."
Kyle comes into the tournament with a 22-4 record and fresh off his fourth straight divisional title. No other player in the Central A has achieved the success he has in the divisional tournament. But like this weekend's possible fourth state title. It's something that he doesn't pay much mind.
"I don't like to think about that kind of stuff," he said. "I kind of let it go as it is and whatever happens, happens. If I go in there worried about the overall results instead of taking it one match at a time, it will come back to haunt me."
Being a part of a four team titles and continuing the run of Pony dominance seems to mean more to Kyle. It's an accomplishment that he and fellow seniors Gary Wagner and Marc Mariani hold very dear, since they have been a major part of the last three.
"It's great never feeling like the underdog," he said. 'We just go out and play our game and know that we can beat teams. When we started out as freshmen, we went into state with that legacy of being state champions. We knew had to keep those expectations that the team and the town have. We practice hard, we play hard and the past four years we've accomplished a lot."
Ferguson knows how much winning a sixth straight team title for Havre means to Kyle.
"Kyle is very humble when it comes to his individual accomplishments," Ferguson said. "I know they mean a lot to him, but I think the team titles may even mean a little more. But they're related because without his individual success, we wouldn't be going for a sixth straight. Even this year, we need him to win the singles title to help ensure the team title."
There's that title talk again. It calls comes at once - the fourth singles title, a page in Montana tennis history and his place alone in the Havre High annals as the best tennis player in school history. There is little doubt in Ferguson's mind and Ferguson knows the player who currently holds that distinction - his brother, Dan, who won a pair of state titles in the late 80's.
"If Kyle were to win the state tournament this weekend, I would have to say it is probably one of the greatest individual achievements in the history of HHS sports," he said. "It is something that no male in Montana has ever achieved and there is a reason for that. It would certainly be a historic moment in Havre High School sports to say the least."
"I think about winning a fourth title," he said. "You can't help it at times. But it isn't something I focus on."
But this could be Baltrusch's toughest year since his first state title. The Central A is filled with good singles players including Colin Fehr of Corvallis, along with Andy Dykstra and Brian DuBuque of Polson.
"No matter who Kyle plays, winning this tournament won't be easy," Ferguson said. "If anyone is up to the challenge I think he is."
So what will it take for Kyle to accomplish what has been impossible for any other player before him to attain.
"I need to play my own match," he said. "I tend to play a little conservative early on until I get a two or three-game cushion. After that, I really try to hit the ball harder and make shots. I just need to focus on one match, one game and one point at a time."
If he does that, Kyle could walk off the court a winner in his final match of high school career and possibly his competitive tennis career. There will be no college tennis for him. A standout student at HHS, Kyle will attend Gonzaga University and major in pre-medicine in the fall. It's not that he didn't want to play for the Zags, it's just that Gonzaga didn't want him to play for them.
"I met with the coach and we talked and he didn't seem to be interested in having me play," he said. "I would have liked to play there, but he didn't think I would be a good fit for the program."
It's not like there wasn't a plethora of offers from smaller schools all wanting his ability on the court and in the classroom, but Baltrusch holds college academics to a higher standard.
"For the past year, I've been back and forth on whether I wanted to play college tennis," he said. "But I view college as higher education and I want to focus on that. I would have liked to play college tennis at Gonzaga, but it didn't work out."
Ferguson isn't quite as diplomatic about Baltrusch's snub from the Bulldogs.
"I think it is a shame that Kyle has not gotten more interest from colleges," Ferguson said. "He is a very good player with a huge upside. I truly believe that he could play at a Division I program because he would only get better as he got acclimated into college tennis.
"Unfortunately, the way colleges recruit aren't always fair. They want to see what you do in summer tournaments across the country and they want their players to play year round, which for the time being, is something we can't do in Havre. Maybe that will change someday. But there is no doubt in my mind that Kyle is good enough to play college tennis."
But even if his tennis career ends this weekend, Kyle knows it's game he will play forever.
"I love tennis," he said. "I can see myself out there playing when I'm 80. Who knows, I'll proably be playing Wagner."