MISSOULA — Hannah Worden is that rare high school athlete that excels in multiple sports on Montana's Class AA level.
She helped lead the Missoula Hellgate volleyball team to a breakthrough state berth last fall. She even contributed for the Knights' basketball team before opting to focus on her No. 1 passion this past winter: Tennis.
Worden already has two Class AA state championship doubles medals. Starting this week she will begin her quest for a rare trifecta, focusing on singles in her senior season.
"I'm excited to watch her play and help her learn the game of singles a little bit better," said Hellgate fifth-year coach Brian Hanford. "She's planning on playing at Whitman (College) next year and has signed with them, so that's exciting.
"She's probably one of the top favorites to win a state title. She's right in the mix for sure."
Worden is blessed with an impressive blend of agility and strength that should serve her well in singles. She's able to get a lot of free points off her strong serve, and her strokes are such that she can be overpowering at times.
"We just need to work on the mental side," Hanford added. "When you've got athletes that are comparable, it's 90 percent mental. That's where the game is going to be won or lost."
Hanford returns three other girls that qualified for state in doubles last season. The senior team of Emma Webster and Emma Peasley should be formidable, and Maya Heffernan will be paired up with a new partner.
One dilemma for Hanford is that some of his experienced players have a conflict on the final day of the State AA tournament, which will be held in Great Falls on May 16-17.
"They have to choose whether or not they're going to play divisionals and try to go to state or take their IB (International Baccalaureate) tests," said the coach, noting that Missoula Big Sky and Kalispell share the same predicament.
"I have some players that have gone to state in the past that will not go to state this year because they're going to be taking the IB test. It's a bummer. Flathead had quite a few players last year in that boat. The ADs (athletic directors) are unwilling to move state back a week."
Hanford also returns state-tested doubles players on the boys' side, including seniors Wyatt Brown and Henry Ledyard and junior Henry Stahl. Colton Quirk is a freshman to watch, and Austin Moseley will be looking to build on a promising performance at state in singles last season.
"The sky is the limit for him," Hanford said of Moseley, who went 2-2 in the showcase meet last May in Kalispell.
Missoula has two new head coaches on the Class AA level in Sentinel's Kelly Crisp and Big Sky's Gary Carnefix. Crisp served as an assistant coach for the Spartans the past five seasons, while Carnefix is new to the high school tennis coaching game and will be assisted by well-known local tennis tournament director Steve Schwartz.
Crisp, like Hanford, has a senior leader making the switch to singles after several strong state performances in doubles. Ethan Violette, who took second in doubles last season with Cody Curtis, has worked hard on his singles in the offseason, with impressive results in United States Tennis Association (USTA) tournaments.
Violette reached the finals of the open singles division in the Helena Spring Fever tournament in late February. He beat Billings club pro Brad Knutson in the semifinal round.
"He's been playing a lot of adult tournaments on the open level," noted Crisp, who used to compete and coach gymnastics at the university now known as MSU Billings. "He and Cody Curtis played quite a bit in the offseason."
Joining Violette and Curtis on the list of returning veterans for the Sentinel boys team are Connor D'Angelo, Aiden Watson and Jack Johnson. D'Angelo reached the quarterfinals of the state meet last spring.
On the girls' side for the Spartans, Meredith Murdock is back after reaching state in singles as a junior. Crisp also expects Sarah Armstrong to make her presence felt this spring.
Crisp, an avid tennis player himself, has expectations for this year's crop of Spartans.
"And I want them to want to learn — create an environment where they just want to go out there and learn without having to be motivated," he offered. "Just being out there is motivation for them. I can see that in this team already.
"I'm not a real hard-core coach, pretty easy going, but I expect them to do what they need to do."
Carnefix stepped forward when Big Sky needed to fill its coaching void this winter. He inherits one of the best boys singles players in the state in Liam Johnson.
Johnson surprised a lot of folks by reaching the State AA singles final last season. He ended up losing in straight sets to Billings Senior's Jesse Dimich-Louvet, who is also back as a junior this season, but the experience should serve Big Sky's top prospect well.
"He's fortunate that he gets playing time and private lessons from the pros out there at the Peak (Racquet Club)," Carnefix said of Johnson, who has worked with one of the best tennis mentors in the state in Jan Steenekamp.
Other battle-tested players expected to make a dent for the Big Sky boys are Jace Tolleson-Knee, Chris Rosenbaum, Logan Murphy and Zuri Macao-Ampao.
On the girls' side, the Eagles will be led by Logan Roberts, Cassie Farago, Brookie Gee and Jaden Brinda.
Carnefix will be learning some things as he goes in his first season. But he's no stranger to tennis or high school coaching.
"It's been a lifelong sport for me," he said. "I had taught and coached JV soccer a bunch of years ago so I thought I had some idea of what this job would entail.
"I love the game. I want to share that love with kids who have an interest in it. We have quite a few new players who haven't played before so we're working to teach them basics and bring their skills along. I've been amazed with the improvement I've seen in practice."
Missoula's three Class AA teams will open their seasons at home on Saturday, weather permitting. One schedule note to keep in mind: the Helena Invitational, which traditionally features all the large-school players in the state right before divisionals, has been replaced by a new all-inclusive meet in Missoula on April 26-27.
On the Class B-C level, Loyola Sacred Heart and Valley Christian have their sights set on making noise in this year's state meet in Bozeman.
The Loyola boys, who took second in the state team race last season, will be led by seniors Jacob Hollenback and David Ramsey. Hollenback took fourth in the state singles draw last season after earning third two years ago. Ramsey took second in doubles in 2018 after making up half of the state champion team two years ago.
"I'm looking looking for Jacob to climb even higher," said Rams coach Patti Danforth, who also has two more veterans on the singles side in Teddy Heuchling and Dan Kaleva.
"Our No. 1 doubles team, we're going to mix it up a little bit. We're going to try David Ramsey, who's a senior, with freshman Jacob Bellamah. He's a really good player. At No. 2, Jaden Job and Garrett Diehl, they're coming on strong."
The Loyola girls team, which also took second at state last season, has a freshman to watch in Evelyn Demblans Dechans. She reached the U18 semifinals of the USTA's Elk Tennis Center Winter Junior Open in Billings in mid-February and she'll play at No. 1 right out of the gate.
"She plays a lot of matches in the (USTA) Intermountain District and she's a really nice player," Danforth said. "At No. 2 singles we'll have Grace Daniel, who played No. 1 last year.
"In doubles, we've moved over singles players in Lauren Bodlovic and Melanie Benson for the No. 1 spot. Our No. 2 team will be Emma Daniel and McKenna Round. We're hoping for state titles on the girls and boys sides. But we'll see. We've got a lot of competition statewide this year."
Valley Christian has a new coach this season in Jodi Karvandi, who served as an assistant last season. She will be rebuilding on the boys' side after Trey Christiaens, who took second twice and third once in state singles, transferred to Bigfork.
Karvandi's three returning boys varsity players are Micah McCloy, Laddie Hawkins and Josh Streit. On the girls' side, the Eagles will be led by singles players Taylor Munoz and Bella Roff.
In Class A, the Polson girls team has its sights set on defending its team title. The Pirates will have a new No. 1 doubles tandem, but veteran coach Bob Hislop says his team "basically has everybody back."
"Shea (McGuinness) is back, our state singles champ," he added. "She had a busy offseason doing things other than tennis, so we're getting her in playing form.
"Berkley Ellis, who was all-state in doubles as a freshman last year, is back and has really improved."
Ellis leads an impressive group of sophomores for the Pirates. The list also includes Qia Harlan, Megan Rost, Sarah Kinzle and Ava Mercer.
"They make up a very nice nucleus but we've got tough teams to beat this season," the coach said. "It's a deep state field and it's going to be fun. The competition is going to be intense and we just have to figure out our lineup. We can get them in shape but you have to have some luck in divisionals and state (in Kalispell)."
Whitefish has a ringer this season in Gracie Smyley, who honed her tennis skills in Florida before coming in as a transfer. Claire Carloss will also be tough in singles and the Bulldogs return the doubles team that took third at state last year in Aubrey Hanks and Olivia Pothoff.
"Plus Hardin has a state runner-up team back back in doubles and Billings Central has three girls back," Hislop noted.
Corvallis will also be a force on the girls' side. The Blue Devils edged Polson in a dual meet two weeks ago, 4-3, with Danielle Coates and Christina Weidkamp earning a thrilling win at No. 1 doubles.
On the boys' side, Whitefish will be a Class A force with the return of 2018 state singles runner-up Brendan Buls. The Bulldogs tied for the state team tiles last year with Corvallis and Hardin.
Whitefish also returns 2018 state singles qualifier Jayce Cripe and Mark Anderson, who made up half of the fifth-place doubles team at state last May.
Corvallis will be a force with Aubry Postier and Jaymark Liedle leading the way in singles and the teams of Ryan Hubbard/Caleb Warnken and Matt Powell/Cody Henstridge in doubles.
Polson has a returning all-stater in Joe McDonald along with battle-tested Kendal Foreman-Webster, Anton Lefthand, Trevor Schulte and Colby Devlin.