MISSOULA — Two of the best Class AA singles players in the state are new to the game this season.
Missoula Sentinel's Ethan Violette and Missoula Hellgate's Hannah Worden are the most established doubles players still active in Montana large-school tennis, each with experience in state championship matches. But both seniors have opted to skip doubles this season, instead focusing on the much more physically demanding game of singles.
Both have exploded out of the chute with identical 5-0 match records and 10-0 set records at No. 1. But both will tell you the switch hasn't been seamless.
"I've been pretty nervous actually," said Violette, whose team pulled out a 5-3 win over Hellgate on Tuesday at blustery Playfair Park. "I've never played singles before, so I'm doing my best to adjust to that.
"Singles is a lot different than doubles, not having a partner out there to keep my mind straight with me and calm me down. That first set today I just got frustrated and emotional out there and that can't happen. After the first set I settled down and relaxed."
Violette has an exceptionally good net game and he used it often in a 6-4, 6-1 win over state-tested Austin Moseley. To Moseley's credit, he did get Violette out of his comfort zone in the first set with deft lobs from the baseline.
"In doubles it's all about getting to the net and that really developed my volleys the last three years," Violette said. "With singles I'm always trying to get to the net because I love the net.
"But if I don't enter right, like you saw today, I get lobbed or passed. You really have to have the right approach shot entry."
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Violette, who is looking forward to his showdown with 2018 state singles runner-up Liam Johnson of Missoula Big Sky on Thursday, was one of three Spartans to earn straight-set singles wins. Aiden Watson won at No. 2 and Zack Roosa at No. 4.
Hellgate earned a big win at No. 1 doubles, with Henry Ledyard and Wyatt Brown rallying past Cody Curtis and Connor D' Angelo, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3. But Sentinel's No. 2 team of Jack Johnston and Sam Olsen and No. 4 team of Will Hartzell and Nash Sauter secured the team win with straight-set wins.
"They were fired up and came out focused," said Sentinel coach Kelly Crisp, whose team improved to 5-0 in dual action. "It's early in the year and they're learning a lot, same with Hellgate.
"I figured before this week, out of 25 days of practice, we were outside six and two of those (the courts at Playfair) had snow drifts."
Worden is the only Missoula player with two state tennis championships under her belt — one coming as a member of the Sentinel team with Katie Veteto and the other last season at Hellgate with Olivia Panarella. Switching to singles has been a brave endeavor and she has reason to be happy so far with her unblemished record.
"So far my biggest opponent has been myself," said Worden, whose 6-4, 6-0 win over state-tested Spartan Meredith Murdock helped her team forge a 4-4 tie. "It's definitely hard to get over the hump of doubles when it's so much fun to play doubles. Then you switch into the gear of singles, which is so much more serious and tense.
"It's been a fun year so far. Sometimes going for the bigger shot is not always the best idea in singles. I learned from basketball to wait for the opening, the perfect moment. Don't force anything."
Murdock grabbed Worden's attention early, using her steady game to build a 3-0 lead. Worden settled down and broke Murdock to knot the score at 4-4. Then Hellgate's senior leader won eight straight games to secure the win.
Sentinel was able to split with Hellgate in singles thanks to wins by Sarah Armstrong at No. 2 and freshman Jayden Johnston at No. 3. Johnston show grit in outlasting Zara Noonen, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Hellgate appeared headed for a team win when its No. 1 and No. 3 doubles teams posted victories, giving the Knights a 4-2 edge. But Sentinel answered with thrilling match-tiebreaker wins at No. 2 and No. 4 doubles. Marina Kasherets and Aurora Bernau won at No. 4, 6-3, 2-6, 10-6, and minutes later Danika Firth and MaKenna Carlson won at No. 2, 7-6, 1-6, 10-7.