KALISPELL — The largest high school in Montana carries a mighty big stick when it comes to the State AA tennis meet.
Bozeman has won the girls' team title six years in a row and the boys' crown two straight seasons. Will this week mark the end of its dominance when play begins Thursday at Flathead Valley Community College?
There's a good chance on the girls' side, where Billings Senior and Missoula Hellgate are expected to make a serious push. Bozeman has a better chance of extending its string of team titles on the boys' side, but it may be close.
"It's going to come down to Bozeman and us (on the boys' side)," said Hellgate coach Brian Hanford, whose boys' and girls' teams went unbeaten in dual play but settled for a tie against the Hawks.
"I need points from all my players. We have a legitimate chance but a lot of things have to go our way."
Hanford has a running offer for his Knights: If they win a state title of any kind — singles, doubles, team — he'll shave off his beard. He's no johnny-come-lately when it comes to growing facial hair, so the clean-shaven look would be a sight to see.
"Eight years ago a good buddy went through chemo and I shaved my facial hair in solidarity, then before that I think the last time was my wedding 13 years ago," Hanford said. "It's been standing bet with my team the last four years and we've had four second-place finishes."
Billings Senior's Jay Montague, Helena's Cory Bowlby and Billings Skyview's Aiden Binau are the players to watch in boys' singles. Bowlby took second last season and Montague third behind state champion Marcos Zelver of Bozeman, who is now a member of the Montana State team.
Missoula Sentinel's Jake Treece is a darkhorse in boys' singles.
"I'm super excited because I played really well in Helena," Treece said of the all-inclusive Helena Invitational earlier this month, which was won by Binau. "It helps to be a senior. I've been playing so long and just knowing that this is my last season, it's fun going out there."
Heather Sikoski of Bozeman is hoping to defend her state title in girls' singles. Gigi Montague of Billings Senior, Maria Frampton of Kalispell Glacier and Mackenzie George of Great Falls CMR are players to watch.
Missoula has the favorites in boys' and girls' doubles. Start with the girls' side, where Hellgate's Olivia Panarella and Hannah Worden haven't lost all season.
Worden made up half of the state champion doubles team two years ago as a member of the Sentinel team. The Panarella family is due for a state title — Olivia took second in doubles two years ago and reached the semifinals in singles last season. And Olivia's sister, Sofia, took second in singles in 2015 and third in 2016 before graduating in 2017.
"Winning state has been a long time coming for one of us," said Olivia, who will attend Stanford in the fall. "It would mean a lot to me and Sofia as well."
In boys' doubles, Sentinel has a juggernaut in the team of Ethan Violette and Cody Curtis. They lost just once this season, that coming to Hellgate's Jesse Howard and Cole Tolleson-Knee. Those two teams are the favorites to reach the finals, although Bozeman's Jackson Pedersen and Andrija Martinovic loom as a dangerous second-round foe for Howard and Tolleson-Knee.
"It really helps to put off some pressure knowing we can beat that (Hellgate) team," said Curtis, alluding to a win in divisional finals. "Them and Bozeman, it’s going to be between the three of us for that championship match. We’ll have some confidence."
Rain is in the forecast for Thursday and Friday in Kalispell. The event will be moved indoors to the Glacier Tennis Club in Kalispell if the courts are wet.