MISSOULA — A trio of tenacious competitors should make for some spellbinding matches in the State A boys singles race starting Thursday.
A handful of points might be all that separates the state champion from the also-rans. Defending champion Bradley Rakich of Dillon, 2018 state runner-up Brendan Buls of Whitefish and junior upstart Caleb Warnken of Corvallis are all relatively even.
Warnken beat Rakich in the regular season, then lost a tough three-setter to the Beavers' senior leader in divisionals last weekend in Hamilton, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3. Buls was swept by Rakich in early April, but the top Bulldog beat Warnken in late April in the Bitterroot Invitational.
Add it all up and it equals tennis worth an admission price Thursday and Friday at Flathead Valley Community College.
"Caleb's divisional final with Rakich was tight the whole way," said Corvallis coach Chris Maul-Smith, who is as excited as anyone to watch the drama unfold. "Caleb is really steady and focused right now and he's willing to play the whole court. He's got a real good repertoire of shots and a steady mind."
Like the singles race, the push for top team honors could be quite intriguing on the boys' side. Last May it was a dead heat, with Corvallis, Hardin and Whitefish all sharing first with 20 points and Dillon and Havre close behind with 18.
It might just be a dead heat again.
"Whoever wins is not going to win by an overwhelming number," opined Maul-Smith, who will mentor two singles players (Warnken and Aubrey Potier) and a doubles team (Jaymark Liedle/Ryan Hubbard) at state.
"That first day is always huge. Being able to move forward right away makes a big difference. I'd like to think we can take home something in the top 3 range, but Hardin is bringing back a lot from last year, Dillon is strong and Whitefish has strong contenders in singles and doubles."
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Two boys doubles teams to watch from the western side of the state are Whitefish's Mark Anderson and Colter Upton and Dillon's Mark Southam and Nathaniel Leonardson. Hardin's John and Ben Noteboom and Havre's Tommy Brown and Tyrel Kjersem are also expected to make some noise.
On the girls' side, Polson's Shea McGuiness is going to have her hands full defending her state singles championship. The level of competition has spiked to the point she finished third in divisionals last weekend.
"She had a rough regular season, but you know when you're state champion everybody is shooting for you," Pirates veteran coach Bob Hislop said. "We did some more strategical things, some little things she wasn't doing quite as well.
"Shea is a smart girl. She knows the competition is better this year and she went to work and the only person she lost to was the divisional champion and probably the state favorite (Whitefish sophomore Gracie Smyley). Otherwise she didn't come close to dropping a set, so we like where she's at."
Like McGuiness, the Polson team will have its hands full trying to repeat as state champs. Key to their success will be the efforts of sophomore doubles teams Berkley Ellis/Qia Harlan and Ara Mercer/Megan Rost.
Ellis and Harlan are fresh off a thrilling win in divisional finals.
"They were down 2-5 in the third, came back and won it in a tiebreaker," Hislop said. "They're definitely a threat of potentially reaching the state championship. And our No. 2 team is peaking at the right time."
Hardin has a formidable doubles team in Katie Murdock and Makiko Reisig, who finished second last year. The Bulldogs have three doubles duos and a singles player at state, making them a threat to win overall honors along with Corvallis, who also boasts seven state qualifiers in Madeline DeLeo and the doubles teams of Molly Powell/Bailey Jessop, Megan Kirkland/Christina Weidkamp and Cecily Gerber/Danielle Coates.
"I think it will be a fun week with lots of competitive tennis," Hislop said. "There's not an easy match at state. Everyone is solid."