By Kim Staudinger
The journey to a third straight state title for the Havre High School boys tennis team may not be an easy task.
The Ponies have dominated their competition all season, but teams from other parts of the state, like Hamilton and Whitefish, have also been winning.
Also, the 11 Ponies making the trip to the state tournament in Kalispell this weekend have had limited practice time due to weather. Havre coach Sam Dierman said his team hopes the tournament will be held outside.
"We don't want to be inside at all because it really increases Hamilton's, Whitefish's and Bigfork's chances because they have indoor courts they can practice on sometimes," Dierman said. "We just don't have that advantage.
"The only thing that will stop these kids is the weather. Perfect conditions for us are windy and cool because that's what we've played in all year."
Eight boys all three doubles teams and two singles players will make the trip to state. That's one more than last year, when the Ponies scored 39 points the most by any Class A state boys tennis team in at least 13 years, Dierman said.
The divisional champion duo of Seth Maristuen and Jeremy Heninger and divisional runners-up Mike Frey and Daine Solomon will lead the way for the doubles teams. Freshmen Gary Wagner and Marc Mariani placed third at last weekend's divisional tournament and will round out the team.
"Our boys doubles teams have not been pushed all year," Dierman said. "At state, they'll be the class of the field if they play their best."
Maristuen and Heninger and Frey and Solomon will be on opposite sides of the bracket and have a good chance to meet up in the championship, Dierman said.
That's a goal shared by both doubles teams.
"We weren't sure how realistic it could be early in the year but it looks like we could now," Maristuen said.
Throughout the season, the boys doubles teams have not seen much competition other than each other. While they give each other stiff competition, seeing other teams will be a nice change.
"Playing a good team every day makes you better, but we're looking forward to playing some other teams," Maristuen said.
Frey and Solomon match up with the No. 3 team from Hamilton in the opening round. Maristuen and Heninger will face a team from Stevensville. Wagner and Mariani will face the No. 2 doubles team from Hamilton.
With the toughest competition coming from Hamilton and Whitefish, getting first-round wins against those schools is crucial.
"If we could get them on the loser's side right away, that would take a lot of points away the first day," Maristuen said.
While Maristuen said he would like to be an individual state champion, the team title means more.
"The team overall is more important because they've never won three in a row," he said. "I think we have a good chance to. We won it last year so we're kind of the favorite to win again. That's what drives us but it makes it a lot harder because everyone is looking to beat us."
Said Dierman: "The past three years our boys have really turned it up at state. The boys are excited about their brackets. My biggest goal with all of them is to see how many points they can each get. If that's good enough for first, fine. If not, at least we know we gave it our best effort.
"We've been a target for every team in state A. They know if they can beat Havre, then they are going to be the best. That's a compliment to our boys tennis program."
On the singles side, divisional champion Kyle Baltrusch and last year's state runner-up Cody McLain will represent Havre.
"With Kyle and Cody, I'm not sure what to expect," Dierman said. "They've been pretty good all year."
Baltrusch draws a No. 4 seed in the first round and McLain matches up with Doug Shryock from Whitefish. Shryock took first in the state in doubles competition last year and is the favorite to win the singles title this year, Dierman said.
"They are both in the toughest draw so they'll have to play well," Dierman said.
Being on the same side of the bracket, Baltrusch and McLain have a chance to meet up with each other on the way to the finals.
"You don't like beating out teammates," Baltrusch said. "It doesn't help your scores. I know Cody has a tough first round. It's always hard meeting up with a teammate before the semis or finals."
Despite being the No. 1 seed from the Central A division, freshman Baltrusch said he isn't nervous about his first state tournament.
"I know I can hit with any one of those players," he said. "No one really knows who I am so it should actually be an advantage to me."
On the girls' side, Crystal Pyrak and the doubles team of Ryan Hamilton and Jennifer Gorder qualified for state. Pyrak placed first, and Hamilton and Gorder placed second.
Pyrak plays the defending state champion in her first match.
"The best time to play a defending state champion is in their first match because they are always nervous," Dierman said.
Hamilton and Gorder meet up with the No. 3 team from the Western Division a team from Columbia Falls.
"People don't realize that the girls doubles in our division always are the toughest," Dierman said. "I think Ryan and Jennifer are going to have a real good showing at state. They've been together for three years. Not too many other teams can say that."