DOMINANT DUO IN TENNIS TOO

Well known for their football prowess at Havre High, the tandem of Marc Mariani and Gary Wagner were every bit as good on the Blue Pony tennis courts each spring

 

File Photo

Former Havre Blue Pony Gary Wagner hits a forehand during the 2005 Class A state championship doubles match played in Lewistown. Wagner would make a name for himself in football, but, he teamed with his best friend Marc Mariani to win back-to-back state championships in tennis.

Havre, and the state of Montana for that matter, know just how good Marc Mariani and Gary Wagner were on the gridiron many years ago. The duo was a big part of the Havre High football team that rocked their way to a Class A state championship title, etching their names in the history books. Mariani and Wagner are still considering one of the best combos in Blue Pony sports history.

But, Mariani and Wagner were not just a force to be reckoned with on the field, as another sports season saw the dynamic duo make history.

Mariani and Wagner may be more recognized for their football careers at Havre, but when it came to spring sports, the two had an excellent career for the Blue Pony tennis program. The duo that made big plays on the field in the fall had a great transition to the tennis court by the end of the school year.

Mariani and Wagner were not a duo right away, though, when they started their tennis careers. Wagner talked about how he and Mariani paired up after some time.

"It's kind of a funny story," Wagner said. "We weren't partners our freshman year. We were playing with different partners and it kind of just worked out that things weren't working properly, so our coach (Sam Dierman) put us together. We were both super competitive. We wanted to win and there was kind of that bond there. It went from there, and we started to win some pretty big matches and wins for our team. We weren't great tennis players, yet, but I'd say we were better athletes."


And that freshman year pairing set up the dominant doubles team Mariani and Wagner would go on to become - eventually winning back-to-back Class A state championships for the Blue Ponies under head coach George Ferguson, who took over the HHS program before their junor year of 2004.

"I knew all about Marc and Gary coming in as the new head coach," Ferguson remembered. "Both of them I have known since they were little, and I have been close to their families for a long time. So, while I was a young, new head coach, I luckily had a bond, a trust already built up with them. And right away, too, it was just so easy to see how talented they were, how special they were going to be those last two years. They had really developed already into a great team before I even got into the program."

That junior year itself was a major accomplishment for Mariani and Wagner. The two had built up a an impressive resume already, having reached the state championship their sophomore year. Then, as juniors, they rolled through an undefeated regular season, and stood on the doortstep of their first title.


"We were in Billings and had two foreign exchange students we had to play against from Glendive our junior year," Wagner said. "We won that game by something crazy. We won that pretty handily. We attacked every match like it was the end of the world. It was win or die basically. That was our mindset, and we played pretty well our junior year. It was a ton of fun. Two years back-to-back, it was a ton of fun. We held each other to a high standard. By no means was it easy and we got after each other."

It may have been their junior year when Mariani and Wagner rose to the top, but they had been in that situation before. In 2003, Mariani and Wagner battled for a state championship against Havre senior teammates Jeremy Heninger and Dane Solomon. It is always a great feeling to play for something as big as a championship against fellow teammates who have been working to get there, too.

Mariani and Wagner lost that match to Heninger and Solomon, which crushed them at the time, but that loss fueled a great fire that would be a great part of the undefeated junior season the duo put up next. It takes a lot to rise back up and put up an undefeated season, but Mariani and Wagner did just that. Looking back, Wagner credits Heninger and Solomon for helping form his game into something greater.

"Marc and I played a lot of tennis against those two," Wagner said. "Because Jeremy was coaching and Dane had moved to single, but Fergie would let us play against those two. We had a lot of really good matches at the Elks Courts right by the high school. A lot of the people that I knew were just athletes playing tennis, but those two were just phenomenal tennis players. It was fun to play against your buddies in a state tournament. But it was devastating for Marc and I because we believed we should have won our sophomore year.


"They were just so competitive," Ferguson said. "They even turned all of my team, and individual drills into competitions and it could get intense. So it wasn't just in matches where they had that fire. They competed non-stop. And they loved to play against Jeremy and his brother Nick, who were both great players, and they loved to get me on the other side of the net from them so they could say they beat their coach, which they did. They just loved to compete on the tennis court, as much as anybody I've ever known, and it obviously paid off."

The competitive drive gave them a chance to do something incredible by the time their senior year rolled around, too.

Mariani and Wagner drove right back to the state championship match in their senior season of 2005, claiming a second state chipper in Lewistown to go back-to-back to finish off their career with the Ponies. The doubles duo saw even more hard work pay off in the end, another trophy to rise above their heads and even more scores for their team as a whole.

But their play styles were not all that different, as Wagner explained how he and Mariani were able to compliment one another's weaknesses and strengths.

"We were scrappers," Wagner said. "We get after a lot of balls and keep them in play. We were able to pull out some wins. I felt like my return game might have been a little bit stronger. He (Mariani) was always good at the net and was an aggressive hitter, so he was able to get to a lot of balls. I think Marc did a fine job of returning, as well. Throughout the course of our career, it was give and take.

"I'll say this about Marc and Gary as tennis players," Ferguson added. "They were stud athletes. Good at everything they did. But make no mistake about it, they were outstanding individual tennis players. Maybe when they were younger the athleticism carried them, but by the time they were seniors, they were as good a players as there was in the state at that time. And that obviously made them one hell of a doubles team. So, because of how incredible their careers ended up being in football, people probably don't understand how good they were at tennis, but they were, they were really, really good, and they were a part of a time when our program was pretty much unbeatable. I mean, they were part of four straight state championship teams. That's pretty special."

Special is also how Wagner describes what playing doubles was to him and his best friend.

But, as special as their bond is to this day, the competitiveness never goes away.

"There's a lot of sports that Marc and I played together," Wagner said. "He's my best friend in the whole world. That being said, I can strongly say I was the better tennis player, which is my one claim to fame over him. We were just competitors. I might be or was the better tennis player at the time, but we complimented each other very well.

"They were great," Ferguson added. "I loved coaching them. They could be a handful sometimes, they loved to be funny, play pranks on me, all that stuff. They could drive myself and Nick and Jeremy absolutely nutty at certain times. But they also were a coaches dream because they worked so hard, they cared so much, they helped make others better and they always, above everything else, did whatever they could do to win, and help our team win. So, at the end of the day, they pretty much had everything a tennis coach could want in them, and looking back on it now, it was such a fun time coaching them. And I have a very special relationship with both of those guys to this day. They are two very good friends of mine, and I love them dearly."


And Mariani and Wagner love each other. That bond is what made them such a force in everything they did, including playing doubles together in tennis, where they ended up being the most successful tandem in Havre High tennis history.

"That says a lot about them," Ferguson said. "That they scored more team points than any other doubles players in our school's history. It says a lot about how good they were because we had a lot, and I mean a lot, of great players come through this program before them and after them. And they also played in what I call one of the best eras of high school tennis in Montana history. So again, it's very impressive what they did together, and you know, with everything else they did together, and then separately in college and the pros and all that, it's crazy to look back on it all now and think about it. That, what they did on the tennis court together, that's exactly how it was supposed to be."

File Photo

Marc Mariani, who would go on to great fame as a professional football player, hits a shot during the Class A state doubles title match in 2005. Alongside his best friend, Gary Wagner, the tandem had the most successful doubles career in Blue Pony history.

 

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