Havre Daily News
After capturing a sixth consecutive boys state championship in 2005, and just falling short of a state title for the girls, the Havre High tennis teams have the same agenda in 2006, win state, and two different ways of achieving it.
Both HHS tennis teams kick the 2006 season off Saturday morning when the Ponies travel to the season-opening Cut Bank Invitational.
Over the last seven seasons, the Havre High boys tennis team has had a firm stranglehold on Class A tennis, winning seven consecutive Central A titles and six straight Class A state championships.
The Ponies hope to continue their dominance this season, but for the first time in a long time, there is some major turnover on the HHS roster and winning its seventh straight state title will not be an easy task.
Gone from the last four state championship teams is four-time Class A singles champion Kyle Baltrusch, who now competes for the Gonzaga University tennis team. The Ponies also will have to replace the two-time defending state champion doubles team of Marc Mariani and Gary Wagner, as well as doubles standouts Coda Tchida and Lucas Hamilton.
“We lost a great deal of experience and some very successful individual tennis players to graduation last year,” HHS head coach George Ferguson said. “But what I think will be tougher to replace than their talent is their experience and their leadership on and off the court. Those guys had a lot of experience playing tennis, and we will sorely miss that.”
However, the Ponies do return seven lettermen from last year's team, including senior Chase Castloo, junior Billy Wagner, senior Scott Miller, senior John Christian, sophomore Todd Roe, junior Ryan Kinholt and senior Jordan Croft. Castloo, Wagner, Miller and Christian all have state tournament experience.
In addition, the Ponies have some promising youngsters on their roster like freshman Shane Kemmer, sophomore David Zentmire, sophomore Brad Hanson, freshman Mason Sheppard, junior Tim McLean, sophomore Dan Pizzini and junior Austin Wilson.
“The well certainly isn't dry,” Ferguson said. “We have a lot of talent on this team and some great young talent to complement our older kids. Our season will really come down to how fast the young kids come along, and fitting together the best combination of singles and doubles players that we can. Putting together a whole new team is our biggest challenge, not whether or not we have the talent to compete.”
If the Ponies are to pull off a historic seven-peat this season, they will have to overcome more veteran teams like Bigfork, Corvallis, Hardin and Polson.
Last season, the Havre High girls team came agonizingly close to capturing the school's first-ever state title in girls tennis. The Ponies lost to Dillon by just two points at the Class A state tournament in Lewistown. However, they were able to win the Central A title for the second straight year, and now they are hoping to build on past success to achieve their ultimate goal.
Havre is a senior-laden team, but will have to replace one of the most accomplished girl tennis players in school history in Amy McLain, who now plays tennis at Montana State University-Billings. The Ponies also lost another outstanding singles player in Megan Rice.
“You can't replace an Amy McLain,” Ferguson said. “In my opinion, she is one of the top two most successful girls players ever at this school. But her success has left a lasting impression on this program because we have a lot of players on this team who really benefitted from having her around for four years.”
The Blue Pony team is loaded with both talent and experience, led by the senior doubles team of Keelie Solomon and Steph Flatau, who are the favorites to win the state title in doubles this year. Solomon and Flatau finished fourth at the state tournament as freshmen and again as sophomores. Last season, they were upset a match short of earning yet another medal at the state tourney.
The Ponies also return a number of other senior players who have state tournament experience, including Karissa Olson and Katie Mariani, who had an impressive showing at state as a freshman.
The Ponies also have a number of other players who have varsity experience and will be called upon this year to take their game to another level. Players like seniors Alexa Lipp, Kari Gorder and Kristi Hollingshead, as well as sophomore Hailey McLain, junior Christen Kittleson, senior Jocelyn Chagnon and freshman Hope Hedges all will be expected to help Havre stay in the hunt for both a divisional and state championship.
“It's going to be a tall order, but I still feel we have as good a chance this year as we did last year,” Ferguson said. “The great thing about our girls team is that this team has been together for a long time and they have always wanted to strive to get better. If all of them continue to have that desire, good things are going to happen for us on the court.”
If the Ponies want to make it to the top this year, they are going to have to get through some stiff competition led by defending state champion Dillon as well as Whitefish, Bigfork and Polson.
The Havre High tennis teams will make their debut this weekend in Cut Bank at the Cut Bank Invitational on Saturday. In the invitational, the Ponies will duel Lewistown, Cut Bank and Conrad.