PRATT — It looked like just another day at practice Sunday.
There was McPherson High’s Gallagher Martin and Nolan Schrader taking on teammates Luke Williams and Kento Aizawa.
Except this was for the Class 4A state championship, as it was an all-Bullpup final with the team title already clinched, its first since 2003 when doubles champions Jamie Crist and Tim Kliewer led MHS to the promised land.
And what a show they put on. Martin and Schrader dropped the first set 7-6, came back to even the match with a 7-5 victory and then repeated that score in an epic-and-thrilling three-setter to earn an automatic spot on the MHS Wall of Fame.
The Bullpups, after going head-to-head all weekend with No. 1-ranked Independence, finally pulled away with 53 points to 45 for the Bulldogs. Abilene, which was in MHS’ regional last week, earned the third plaque with 31 and Topeka Hayden was just out of the running with 28.
That Martin and Schrader, a senior and a freshman, were the champions was a remarkable story in itself. Get this — they had not played a single match together in actual high school competition until MHS coach Tyler Brown made the dangerous move to match them up for the regional. They won all four matches at Lindsborg and then four straight here for a final 8-0 record.
“Besides me asking several veteran coaches, one of those coaches being (former MHS head coach) Doug Gayer, of what they thought of going into regionals with a new doubles team at a record of 0-0 and how coaches would react, I also consulted in my right-hand man (assistant coach) Noah Lindfors,” Brown said. “When I decided to go with such a bold move that would later end up being a state champion doubles team so late, it was my assistant coach that completely backed me when I had such a gut feeling on this combo. He was the guy that was like, ‘coach, if that’s what you think is best....do it’, and that’s all I needed or I guess you could say wanted to hear from someone. Noah, in my eyes, is probably the best assistant coach a head coach could have.”
And Brown couldn’t have been happier for the newly formed duo.
“What a run from these two,” Brown said. “They only finished that last two weeks 8-0, and became regional and state doubles champions. Nolan is probably my best doubles player mixed with a rejuvenated Gallagher Martin, which was a recipe for success and that made for one of the most exciting teams to watch. With Nolan's strong doubles skills, and the hype and energy of Gallagher Martin, they were a team to be reckoned with.”
It’s the second straight year MHS has won the doubles title, as the Horton twins, Ryan and Peter, triumphed last year.
Brown, who obviously was torn when watching the doubles final, could hardly forget Williams and Aizawa, as they played superb throughout the weekend.
“They were my wild ride,” Brown said. “Even though they had their ups and downs throughout the year, they definitely came through when it mattered. In every big tournament they found themselves in the quarterfinals or better in most big tournaments. This senior-junior combo was the team that had to come out of the No. 1 seeds quarterfinal. What we thought would be a matchup of the No. 1 seed (Josh) Hilger and (Sam) Hilger (of Independence) ended up to be the blazing hot team of (Trapper) Bellah and (Nick) Reinert of Smoky Valley. They pushed our boys to three sets (on Friday) where we would give Smoky Valley their only loss of the tournament. Besides the finals between our two teams, that probably was the most heart-attack match. Especially by beating a team that is coached by one of the legends himself, John Bellah.”
The Bullpups also scored big points in singles, as Andrew Snell was fourth and Kaden Stewart bounced back from his opening-round loss to win out and take ninth for some valuable points.
“Andrew Snell, he is again another class act on and off the court,” Brown said. “What Andrew Snell accomplished this state tournament no other MHS graduate has. He placed fourth at state. That is the highest finish from any MHS boys tennis player ever in singles. Andrew, with huge wins over Zack Schroeder of Indy early in the season and wins over other established players, is what helped our regional get the overall No. 2 seed in the 4A State Tournament. He truly helped set the singles state bracket on one of the few seeding meetings I have been in that basically no voting had to be made. Seeds 1-4 from directs and indirects were all basically pre-determined other than the unanimous No. 1 seed of Tommy Hunter (of Hayden).”
Snell actually lost to Schroeder in Sunday’s third-place match, but has a chance to do something special the next three years.
Stewart, who like Snell and Schrader also has three more years, may have been the unsung hero.
“The other huge thank you has to go out to Kaden Stewart, sacrificing playing doubles with Nolan Schrader with an outstanding record of 19-5 at the time,” Brown said. “Kaden stepped into a role where I felt like we were struggling late in the season. Kaden stepped up to play singles to join Andrew Snell in placing not just one, but two, becoming that second guy to finish right were I was hoping, ninth place. I cannot say enough about his character and maturity knowing that he very well could of been a state champion in doubles to give us the points we needed in singles. I'm still amazed that those type of qualities came from a freshman. He is truly the epitome of what you want in a player on and off the court.”
The Bullpups will be raising the 54th state championship banner in school history in December in the Roundhouse. For Brown it’s his second, as he led the MHS girls to the state championship in 2013.
Hunter won the singles title, his third, by defeating Abilene’s Gabe Johnson in the finals.
Independence’s second-place finish included thirds from Schroeder in singles and an eighth from Lane Schicke. Indy also was third in doubles with Patrick Hardy and Will Schabel, while the Hilgers worked their way back up to seventh.
Smoky Valley took ninth in the team scoring behind the finish of Bellah and Reinert, who were fifth. What’s remarkable about that is they were fifth in the regional meet last week.