HHS's Miller made his dream come true
With his Class A singles title last Friday in Billings, Jeff Miller joined an elite club
Last updated 5/28/2014 at 11:02am
There is always some discussion when it comes to what makes a program or athlete elite. There are many factors that go into making that decision, including accomplishments and the caliber of the opponent faced. But other times, there is no discussion at all, an athlete can simply let his or her numbers and achievements speak for themselves.
Havre High sophomore Jeff Miller always knew he had what it takes to be an elite prep tennis player. It is in his genes. And growing up with his hands wrapped around a tennis racquet since the age of five, he had the mentality of eat, drink and sleep tennis. And Miller’s approach to the sport of tennis paid off in the biggest way possible. This past weekend, at the Class A state tournament in Billings, Miller captured the singles state title and became just the fifth Blue Pony to win a boy’s single championship in the program’s history.
“It is pretty great,” Miller said. “And pretty much a dream come true. I watched my brothers do it when I was younger, and that makes it a lot better going out that way. It was definitely way different my freshman year, and definitely not how I wanted my season to end (last year). I knew I just had to change my attitude and get my stuff together and that is what I did.”
With his championship win last Friday, Miller joined an elite and special club of HHS players to win a boy’s singles title. He joined the likes of his cousin, Dan Ferguson, as well as Abe Mikota, two-time champion Kellan Malone and four-time champion Kyle Baltrusch.
"I couldn't be more proud of Jeff as his coach," Havre High head coach George Ferguson said. "I have so much respect for the tennis player he's become, and for the type of young man he's grown up to be. Jeff is a kid everyone likes and respects. And even though he's just a sophomore, he's also a leader on our team, and the kids really look up to him and follow his lead. Jeff is very deserving of this moment because he has devoted himself to this sport and to this program. He got to the top of the mountain the right way, through hard work on the tennis court, through dedication and by chasing his dreams. Jeff earned this state championship and I'm so happy for him. This is a very special moment for him, and the really cool thing is, he's just a sophomore, and he's got a lot of special tennis moments still ahead of him."
Jeff’s older brothers Jeremy Heninger and Kyle Miller also won state championships in doubles, while brother, Nick Heninger was also an All-State tennis player for the Blue Ponies in his day. Jeff grew up watching his brothers play, drawing him into the sport and showing him the ropes.
“Those guys pretty much raised me playing tennis,” Miller said. “They would take me to the courts every day, so I have to give them a lot of the credit. But now I have some bragging rights for a while, and it would be great to get another one or two titles.”
And while Jeff’s school ID card labels him as a young sophomore, his tennis resume says otherwise.
Miller’s title capped off an amazing 2014, one that left him with a 29-3 record and 51-11 record overall in his two years as a Blue Pony. He didn’t lose a match to a Class A opponent this season, as all three of his losses came at the hands of Class AA players, all of whom competed at the Class AA state tournament last weekend as well. Two of his losses came at the Helena Invite three weeks ago, one to Lane Ryerson of Helena High, this years’ AA runner up, and Dylan Harvala of Missoula Hellgate, this years’ AA third-place finisher. Miller didn't drop a single set against a Class A opponent until the semifinals last Friday against Polson’s Brady Hislop, and his two sets that he lost at the state tournament were his only sets dropped against Class A or B-C players this season.
All that success was wrapped up with his title match, an odd ending, but one that still resulted in his title dreams coming to life.
Miller defeated Corvallis’ D.J. Pekoc in the championship match after Pekoc was forced to retire in the third set with a leg injury. Pekoc defeated Miller in the first set 6-3, but Miller won the second set 7-5 to force a third. But Pekoc overcame several injury timeouts to come out strong in the third set before finally throwing in the towel. The set was on serve 2-3, but Pekoc could no longer play and Miller was crowned champion.
Miller has wanted to be a state champion since elementary school, and while this title was a hard pill to swallow at first, he is still ecstatic to have earned it at such a young age.
“Being a state champion means a lot,” Miller said. “It means I am right there at the top level with even Class AA kids, and that is a big deal. And it takes hard work, it means playing at the courts day or night. But around here we don’t have indoor courts, so I have to put in all my time over the summer, and sometimes luck out in the winter with a break in the weather. But at the time I didn’t even want the title because nobody wants to win it like that. But looking back, it is just whatever now. I was out there playing in the same conditions he was, and now it doesn’t matter, I am the champion and that is all that matters.”
Miller still has plenty of tennis left in him. With two more years to play with the Blue Ponies, he has two more opportunities to claim state titles. His work ethic has gotten him this far already, and this summer means more tournaments and more late nights at the courts. Tournaments like the Montana State Junior Open in Missoula brings in hundreds of kids each summer. And that means plenty of quality matches for Miller, as he also travels to tournaments in Polson and Great Falls to stay sharp.
"Jeff is one of those tennis players who doesn't come around often in Montana," Ferguson said. "He's a kid who is all-in when it comes to tennis, and especially in Class A, that's becoming more and more rare. So he's worked very hard to get to this point. He's been a part of our program basically since he was six or seven years old. He grew up watching all of his brothers do amazing things at this level. And he's been playing tennis and working for this moment for that long, so when he got to this point, he was ready. This has been a goal and a dream of his for a long time. This state championship is a testament to not just how good of a tennis player Jeff is, and he is a great one, but also to his dedication, the level of work he puts into his tennis and to his tremendous heart because he played with real heart and desire in Billings."
Miller now has the target on his back after winning a singles title. But after ending his season with a loss at the state tournament last season, the only thing that has made him hungrier was ending his season with a win in the chipper this season.
“All those guys will be back so I will have to do everything I can to get better this summer and be ready for the start of next year,” Miller said. “Last year going out with a loss to a kid I shouldn’t have lost to made me want it even more. But now I proved I can play with anybody, and now the goal is to be a three-time champion, and do whatever I can to get there.”