For over a decade, the Havre High boys and girls tennis teams have been the epitome of consistent. The HHS boys have brought a trophy home from the Class A state tournament for 14 straight years, while the Pony girls have captured a trophy in seven of the last eight seasons, and have won two state championships in the last four years.
But as is always the case in high school sports, the names change as kids come and go. However, HHS ninth-year head coach George Ferguson says the goals never change at Havre High as the Ponies are set to begin a new season on Saturday at the Cut Bank Invitational.
“Our main objective every season is to develop our kids, to give them the opportunity to become the best tennis players they can be,” Ferguson said. “If we as coaches do that right, the trophies and all of that stuff takes care of itself. But at the start of every season, we just look to give the kids the best chance to improve, and we want them to enjoy the sport in the process. Especially this time of year, we don’t put a lot of emphasis on wins and losses. It’s much more about learning and how you play the game. We strive for our kids to learn to play the game the right way.”
And in the process of doing that, the Ponies certainly have ample opportunities to learn against top-notch competition. Because of HHS’s location, the Ponies play a bevy of versatile tournaments and different opponents. Havre starts its season in Cut Bank and Conrad, then host the Havre Invite on April 9. After that, the Ponies play tough meets like the Class A Duals in Cut Bank, the Great Falls Invitational and the Helena Invitational, which is widely considered the best tennis tournament in Montana each spring. All of that leads up to the divisional tournament which is May in Lewistown, and for some, the Class A state tournament, which runs ? in Great Falls.
And Ferguson says the Ponies’ schedule is one reason Havre has had so much success over the years.
“Our kids get to see a lot of competition,” Ferguson said. “Really, over the course of two months, we’ll play the best teams in Class AA, A and B-C. Because we can’t dual our teams in our own conference every week like they can in the west and east, we end up playing a very tough schedule each year. But the upside to that is our kids see a lot of great competition and I believe it really prepares them for anything they will face in the postseason.”
And the postseason has been good to the Ponies, especially the boys, who are on a streak that may never be equaled. Havre boys teams have finished third or better at state for 14 straight years, and HHS has also won 13 Central A championships in that time.
And this season, the Ponies are returning a solid group of players from last year’s second-place team. HHS lost star singles player Kyle Miller, but junior Justin Jensen is back after reaching the state tournament a year ago. Junior Brayden Grimson is also back after teaming with sophomore Danny Roe to place sixth in doubles at state last season. Roe is out with an injured wrist, meaning Grimson may see some time at singles. Havre also returns the rest of its doubles teams in tact. Seniors Keenan Dolezal and Zach Cichosz reached the state tournament last season, while juniors Simon McCann and Blaine Grisak came within a match of making it to state as well.
And not only is Ferguson excited about his top returning players, but he’s looking forward to Havre having some depth this year. Sophomores like Nick Rhines, Jacob Holden and JJ Hovet all gained valuable experience a year ago, while William Wagner returns with varsity experience to boot. HHS also has a large group of freshman out this season, all of which could compete for varsity spots.
“We have great numbers on our boys team, and that will make practice very competitive,” Ferguson said. “With the large number of freshman and sophomores, we have very good depth to go with our upperclassmen. I’m really encouraged with the talent and potential of this freshman class. So that’s very exciting because we haven’t quite been able to build that depth the past few years.
“I think our boys team has a really good chance to be very good by the end of the season,” he added. “And really, we’re a young team still, so that’s a big plus. All of the kids have started the season off well, they are working hard, and I think we have a really good chance to be very successful this season and beyond.”
The Pony girls just missed out on a trophy last season, and they have more holes to fill than the boys team does. Havre graduated four-year doubles players Morgan McCann, Jolee Landgraf, Hayley Donovan and Courtney Kinholt, as well four-year singles player Christina Plum. That group presided over the most successful four years in HHS girls history.
However, the cupboard is by no means bare on the girls team. Havre has another strong senior class led by four-year singles players Christina Mack, Danielle Faechner and Teresa Buerkle. Mack reached the state tournament as a junior and is considered one of the top returning singles players in the Central A this season, while Faechner and Buerkle have both played on the varsity for a long time. Doubles is where the Ponies must rebuild some, but HHS does return sophomores Jade McCormick and Jennifer Cichosz as well as seniors Monique Wilson and Kirsten Keller, both of whom have also seen varsity action in the past. Sophomore Lainey Chagon will also give the Ponies a boost in singles after an outstanding freshman season a year ago.
“We lost some great players off of last year’s team,” Ferguson said. “We lost the two winningest girls doubles teams in the history of our school so it would appear we have a lot of rebuilding to do. But I don’t look at that way. Our seniors this year have been outstanding for us for a long time and they give us great depth in singles.
“Yes, we have to find some new doubles teams to go along with Jade (McCormick) and Jenn (Cichosz), but just like the boys team, we have a group of outstanding freshman girls this year, and their progress over the first two weeks is really exciting,” he added. “I’m really encouraged by our freshman girls and I know we’ll find some good doubles teams there. So my feeling is, as we continue to improve this season, and with our seniors leading the way, we have a chance to be a strong girls team by the time the month of May rolls around.”
And in high school tennis, the month of May is what it’s all about. The Ponies use March and April to improve, to work on fundamentals and to make sure they are playing their best tennis in May. It’s a formula that’s worked well for years at HHS and it shouldn’t change anytime soon.
“Everything we do, whether it’s practice or matches is part of a process,” Ferguson said. “We want the kids to be successful all year and we want them to be in the best position to find that success. But the real measure of success comes at the end of the season, so that’s what our emphasis on. We just want to walk off the court every time we practice or play matches and say we got a little bit better each time out.
“The game of tennis is about repetition, doing the same thing over and over until it’s part of your muscle memory,” he added. “So we focus hard on the fundamentals of the game so that when we get to May, our kids are in the best possible position to find that success they are all striving for. And right now, with these first few meets, especially because we have so many young kids, all we want to do is use each day to learn and improve. That’s all we’re looking for. And I’m really excited about that because we have great kids out for the team this year. They are a lot of fun to work with and I’m looking forward to getting out there and watching them all learn and grow as players.”
Havre will partake in the Cut Bank Invitational on Saturday regardless of the weather. Cut Bank has two indoor courts, so the Ponies will play tennis this weekend. Havre’s two home dates include a girls-only dual against Class B-C state champion Chinook on April 4 as well as the Havre Invitational on April 9. For an even more in-depth look at Blue Pony tennis, see next week’s Spring Sports Preview in the Havre Daily News.