But Superior girls, V. Christian boys clear favorites in B-C
Western A tennis looks wide-open this spring, but the B-C ranks have clear-cut favorites.
Stevensville's boys will be in the hunt in Western A with much state tournament experience, as will Bigfork and Hamilton. The Hamilton girls figure as the team to beat, with Stevensville, Bigfork and Polson also challenging.
It's a different story in Western B-C, where state championship teams return nearly intact. The Superior girls will be gunning for a three-peat, in fact, while the Valley Christian boys are out for their second straight state title.
Class A: When Stevensville coach Bill Everett thinks of boys' tennis in Class A, one team immediately comes to his mind.
"Glendive is always the team to beat," he said of the defending champion Red Devils. "They're always my first thought. I'm just hoping they've graduated all their good players."
On this side of the mountains, Everett thinks his Yellowjackets will be in the mix, as will Bigfork and Hamilton. Stevensville has five boys with state tournament experience. The 'Jackets are led by seniors Grant Mullin, Sabastian Travis, Bud Kauffman and Ethan Napolitano in singles, as well as juniors Tanner Mullin and Scott Barbian in doubles.
"We're in pretty good shape on the boys' side," Everett said. "A lot of them have had four years of experience and have been to state."
Bigfork's Paul Sullivan could contend for the state singles crown. As far as doubles, Everett expects to see a team from his squad standing at the end.
"I expect us to be contenders in doubles, at least," he said.
As for the girls, Everett is more concerned with taking care of business locally before worrying about competition around the state.
"At this point I'm not worrying about (the state tournament)," he said. "All you can do is wait and see who you get."
Marie Woltanski, the state runner-up a year ago, is back for Stevensville, which finished second at state. But so is state champion Crystal Richter of Hamilton.
Everett figures there could be a four-team logjam at the top of the west, but everyone will gun for Hamilton.
"Hamilton is going to be the team to beat in the west," Everett added. "I'd also have to include us, Polson and Bigfork at this point."
Polson was a step behind the competition at last year's state tournament, scoring just four points, but Everett believes the Pirates have caught up. Bigfork, after winning 12 consecutive state championships in the Class B ranks, lost top singles player Tanya Potts, who finished fourth at state, but will still be a team to contend with, according to Everett.
Class B-C: The Valley Christian boys return virtually every key member from last year's state championship team. However, Eagles' coach Ron Hanson knows it will be just as difficult to do it again.
"It's going to be tough (to repeat)," he said. "We've got everybody back, but Loyola will be right with us. They return pretty much everybody, too."
A year ago, the Class B-C boys' season came down to a singles match and a doubles match at the state tournament, both pitting Valley Christian against Loyola. The Eagles got victories in each and took home the hardware. Valley's Neil DeGroot came away with the singles title over Loyola's Tim Morman. In doubles, the Eagles' Chris Jackson-John Elsen duo topped the Rams' Jordan Larson and Tyler Hackney.
The doubles combination of Jackson and Elsen should challenge for a title again, but Larson and Hackney are also back and edged the Valley Christian duo in an early-season meeting Wednesday. Loyola and Valley battled to a 3-3 tie.
Morman returns for Loyola, and German exchange student Stevan Krug will make them even tougher. "(Krug's) going to make them very strong," Hanson said. "They're all real consistent players, real strong players. They'll be real tough to beat once again."
Hanson also threw Cut Bank into the mix of possible contenders. Michael Paulson, who finished third at state in singles a season ago, returns for the Wolves.
"(Cut Bank) can sneak in there," he said.
St. Ignatius is led by junior singles ace Will Fleming, while Conrad brings back John Wettendorf, who placed sixth at state in 1999.
On the girls' side, Superior, led by 15-year head coach Rick Berreth, is coming off back-to-back state championships. If all goes according to plan, a three-peat is a definite possibility. The Bobcats have singles state champ Keely Alexander returning, as well as the state title-winning doubles tandem of Arial Duncan and Alicia Hazlett.
"Things can easily change, but at the beginning we'd have to be the favorite," said Berreth. "Conrad and Boulder will be the main competition for state, and Loyola will be tough in the conference."
Conrad, the state runner-up last season, returns third-place finisher Amy Pearson as well as the doubles combo Tia Jensen and Jessica Gollehan, who were fourth place last year. Boulder also has singles experience with Virginia Johnson and Melanie May.
As for Loyola, Katie Donofrio and Arley Muth are joined in the singles competition by Shelly Johnston and freshman Amy Larson. The Heartbreakers also have the combination of Megan Pickens and Ruthy Snively in doubles.
"Superior is the best girls' team in the area for Class B-C," said Valley Christian coach Steve Jackson. "I don't see anybody being able to beat them."
Jackson's Eagles aren't as deep as the rest of the competition, with only six girls. Jessica Lambdin, who placed at state last year, is the leader. Lambdin has already defeated Donofrio this season, a three-set victory on Tuesday.
St. Ignatius have Jackie Gerdts as well as Jenny Couch in singles, and Emily Schock and Steph Morton in doubles.