The storylines of the championship matches of Saturday’s Class 4A Regional Tennis Tournament were about a comeback that McPherson High pulled off and one that showed great promise but fizzled out.
The Bullpups already had clinched qualifying all six players for state during Friday’s first round, with Saturday determining just how high they’ll be seeded in Topeka next week.
In the doubles championship match, MHS’ Kento Aizawa and Nolan Schrader found themselves down 5-1 in the first set to Smoky Valley’s fifth-place state finishers from a year ago, Trapper Bellah and Nick Reinert.
But the MHS duo seemingly flipped the switch, reeling off four wins in a row to tie the set at 5-all. After Reinert served the Vikings into a 6-5 lead, Schrader blasted away with some fierce offerings to even the match and force a tie-breaker.
The Bullpup duo seemed emboldened by their scintillating comeback and ran off a 7-2 win, which seemed to take the air out of the Viking team, as it lost the second set 6-2.
In the singles championship match, McPherson’s No. 1-seed Jarrod Nowak was off-kilter in losing the first set 6-2 to Abilene’s twice-beaten Jacob Berven. Then after losing the first game of the second set, Nowak showed the form that had earned him a 28-4 record entering the finals by ripping off four straight wins.
But the Abilene lefty began to frustrate Nowak with a lob game and he stunningly won five games in a row to close out the match with a 6-4 success. Berven is now 30-2 and he avenged one of those losses with the win over Nowak.
With Andrew Snell taking third in singles, and Kaden Stewart and Hadley Hageman finishing third in doubles, the Bullpups are armed and ready to make a run at No. 1-ranked Wichita Collegiate, which will enter the meet as a clear favorite after defeating the Bullpups two weeks in a row.
MHS won the regional with 23 points, with Abilene (15), Buhler (11) and Smoky Valley (8) rounding out the Top 4. The remaining five teams combined to score just one point, that by Hays.
In addition to the Bullpups qualifying their entire team, Buhler did as well, while Abilene advanced both singles players and a doubles team.
“Everybody is going to state, we won as a team,” MHS coach Tyler Brown said. “That’s been our strength this year. Not to downplay anybody else’s regional, but I truly feel this is the deepest regional in 4A. We had four really good teams.”
Brown admits the Bullpups probably will have to be even more on their game next week if they’re to overtake Collegiate, which has really started to flex its considerable muscle now that it’s playing all its top players at the same time after shuffling lineups throughout the season.
“We’ve got to work on some mental toughness. we have the talent and the shots,” Brown said. “We get in certain situations where we need to make the right choice in shot selection. It’s just a matter of pulling the trigger on the right shots.”
Nowak needed three sets to defeat Snell in the singles semifinals after they swapped 6-2 wins in the first two sets. Snell routed Abilene’s Ryan LaCombe 6-1-6-2 for third.
Stewart and Hageman, after losing in the semifinals to Bellah and Reinert 6-3, 6-4, defeated Buhler’s Hank Goertzen and Hunter Wiehl for third, 6-4, 6-4. They were down 4-3 in the second set before winning the final three games.
Smoky Valley coach John Bellah was hoping a couple other of his entries would get through, as the Vikings lost two matches that determined a Top 6 berth.
Yet, he is excited about his doubles team perhaps equaling or surpassing last year’s finish, though the field appears to be much deeper than a year ago.
“Last year at the state tournament they turned it on and played some phenomenal tennis,” Bellah said. “They haven’t been playing that well this year, especially the last couple of weeks, but I say today in the first round against McPherson (Stewart and Hageman) they were playing about as well as they had played all year. After the first seven games over here (in the finals against Aizawa and Schrader) we started thinking about things and started to doubt ourselves. In the tie-breaker and the second set we hit too many ‘out’ balls and we didn’t make them earn their points as much. It’s all about the draw at state. I know, and they know, they can compete against anybody at the state tournament.”
Here is the complete list of qualifiers:
• SINGLES •
1. Jacob Berven, Abilene, 30-2
2. Jarrod Nowak, McPherson, 28-5
3. Andrew Snell, McPherson, 20-8
4. Ryan LaCombe, Abilene, 23-7
5. Jared Smart, Buhler, 18-9
6. Garrett Severud, Buhler, 19-10
• DOUBLES •
1. Kento Aizawa-Nolan Schrader, McPherson, 26-2
2. Trapper Bellah-Nick Reinert, Smoky Valley, 24-7
3. Kaden Stewart-Hadley Hageman, McPherson, 19-8
4. Hank Goertzen-Hunter Wiehl, Buhler, 18-8
5. Jason Petz-Westin Shehl, Abilene, 21-6
6. Isaac Hubbell-Brenton Cooke, Buhler, 18-9.