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Reload: Young Blue Pony girls learning HHS tennis traditions

Blue Ponies aim to keep growing at Mayfair Invite in Billings

 

Last updated 5/6/2021 at 8:11am

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Havre's Kate Hemmer hits a shot during the Havre Invitational tennis tournament last month. Hemmer is a part of a very youthful Havre High girls tennis team, that has been rebuilding this season after two large senior classes graduated and the pandemic canceled the 2020 season. The Pony girls and boys head to the Mayfair Invitational this weekend in Billings.

By Havre Daily Staff

The Havre High boys tennis program has had a run of success that's hardly been paralleled in Class A tennis, and it spans nearly three decades.

Currently, the Blue Ponies have a 12-year divisional championship winning streak going, and, as the Ponies head to the Mayfair Invitational this weekend, they're gearing up to battle for No. 13.

During that time, the HHS girls program has had its moments, too, however. Blue Pony head coach George Ferguson guided the Ponies to their first-ever girls state championship in 2006, and HHS did it again in 2009. The Ponies have also won nine divisional team titles in Ferguson's 19 years as both the girls and boys coach at HHS.

Still, there have also been times when the ultra-successful boys program has overshadowed girls tennis at Havre High, no matter how good the Ponies have been. It's been something that Ferguson has always worked hard to not let happen, and he's definitely doing that again this season, as the Pony girls have nine newcomers to the program.

"We've had some rebuilding years in our girls program. for sure, and this season is definitely one of those," Ferguson said. "In fact, it's kind of similar to my first year as head coach, where I think we only had three or four true returning varsity players, and the rest were either JV the year before, or were freshman. And two years later, that team won a state title."

Unlike in years past, however, where time and graduation simply makes it necessary to rebuild, the pandemic had as much to do with the Havre girls inexperience in 2021 as anything else. Ferguson said, the combination of back-to-back big senior classes, and nearly a year of not having real high school tennis was somewhat of a perfect storm for the girls program to have to begin again.

"When last season was canceled, I knew it would be a big challenge to retain a lot of the younger kids," Ferguson said. "On sign-up day in 2020, we had 25 girls out for tennis, and 51 total kids out. Those are really good numbers for a Class A program. But then a week later, it was all over, and so many of those young kids and newcomers, they just never got a chance to really learn the game and find out what our program and high school tennis is all about, and that really hurt, especially our girls team.

"And it's pretty much that way across Montana," Ferguson added. "Numbers, especially in girls tennis this spring are down. I think the pandemic has more to do with that than anything. So it's really tough. To lose a year in a sport like tennis, I can't begin to tell you how hard that is, especially for the beginners."

Ferguson noted that, once it was allowed, he did begin open tennis in the summer and fall, but, with the pandemic raging in Havre and all across Montana, he said sessions were hit or miss, and again, that made it tough to retain and recruit, especially on the girls side.

"It wasn't until winter open gym tennis that we were able to get together consistently," Ferguson said. "We had eight really good weeks in a row of winter open tennis, and that helped a lot. But at the same time, that's really close to our season, and it was difficult to get a ton of new kids involved. I think, a lot of young kids are a bit intimidated to try a brand new sport like tennis because, in all honesty, it's very, very difficult to learn from scratch. Kids will get hooked on it for sure, that's what has made our programs so successful over the years. But last year, we never got the chance to get a lot of new kids hooked on it."

That, however, is finally changing.

A plethora of freshman and sophomore girls, and other newcomers are out for Blue Pony tennis this spring, and combined with the return of older players like senior Talia Ralph, junior Grace Crantz and juniors Mackenzie Mangold and Destiny Hernandez, Ferguson said his girls program is and will be, rising once again.

"We have an awesome group of girls," Ferguson said. "They've been eager to learn the game. They seem to really enjoy it, and that's a huge first step because, again, it can be very frustrating at first. And that's what we told all the new girls back in February, it's going to be hard, it's going to be humbling, it's just a really tough sport to learn. But six weeks later, they're really starting to figure it out, and it's so much fun to watch."

Havre's core of young players includes first-year senior Kaylee Torgerson, sophomores Kate Hemmer, Rayna Johnson, Kat Kaftan and Courtney Burchard, as well as freshmen Chloe Bricker, Mylee Shennum and Kylie Greenwood among others. And while the group is picking up the game, and the traditions of HHS girls tennis, they're also still taking their lumps at times, and Ferguson said, it's not easy.

"I know it's hard for them, they're all competitive and they want to win," Ferguson said. "Even our older girls, our returners, they really didn't have much varsity match experience, so it's been a struggle at times, because our schedule is so tough. Wins have been hard to come by and I know that's hard on these girls sometimes. But they're also gaining so much, they're learning so much. They're playing high-level varsity tennis, and no matter what their scores are, the experience is invaluable and it's going to make them so much better, not just later this season, but in the future."

And that's what Ferguson said his young girls team is building for. Ralph and Torgerson are Havre's only seniors, and Ferguson expects numbers to continue to rise next year now that things are returning to normal. And that's why he never hit the panic button because, with his girls program, he's been here before.

"It's always kind of been up and down with girls tennis, as far as the numbers go," Ferguson said. "We've had a ton of success, and we have a great history of girls tennis here, but it's also had to kind of start over a few times, and that's what we're doing now. I've done it before, and actually, it's been a lot of fun working with this group this year.

"I'm really enjoying going back to the basics and teaching tennis," Ferguson added. "And I'm really proud of this group of girls for first, coming out for the team and trying this sport, and secondly, for sticking with it and really wanting to learn and get better. The whole girls team is doing a great job of learning the game and getting better, but also learning the traditions of our program and embracing what we do in Blue Pony tennis. I'm proud of these girls, and I know they're going to do a great job of passing this on to more new players next year, and this team will just get better and better. I know it will because, like I said, I've seen it before."

The Havre boys and girls teams will play at the Mayfair Invitational in Billings Friday and Saturday. The Ponies face Sheridan, Wyoming, Billings Central, Hardin, Livingston and East Helena at various locations in Billings, which is also the site of the Class A state tournament later this month.

 

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