MISSOULA — Alina Kot still remembers well the frightening morning that prompted her father to pack up the family and flee Ukraine.
They were living in war-torn Kyiv when an explosion smashed her bedroom window.
"It was so scary," the Miles City junior said in between matches Thursday at the State A tennis meet at the Peak Racquet Club in Missoula. "It was 4 a.m. on a Thursday, usual day, and I was supposed to go to school.
"My window was crushed. We went by car and crossed the border into Poland. Right now I'm so grateful I have the opportunity to study in Montana because I have friends in Ukraine and there's no opportunity to study. It's so dangerous."
From Poland the Kot family kept going until arriving in Spain, where they spent two months before departing for the United States in the summer of 2022. Her father chose Miles City because he had such a great experience as a foreign exchange student at Custer County High School when he was 16.
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Alina decided to try high school sports for the first time two months ago because she had played tennis as a child before putting down her racket when COVID-19 hit. The 16-year-old junior has been successful since the start, losing only one match this season to a Class AA foe from Billings.
On Friday she will play against Clara Todd of Polson in the semifinal round at Fort Missoula. Regardless of whether she wins or loses, this spring has been a blessing for the 5-foot-10 Kot, who hopes to someday play in college.
"I really like high school tennis," she said. "In Europe we don't have school sports.
"It's really cool when you have like team. I really love my team. They all are so nice. My first practice, they're all like my friends. They always support me during the games."
Kot's opponent in the semifinals, Todd, has endured her own brand of adversity the past five years. The senior had reconstructive knee surgery as an eighth grader and freshman and was told by a doctor that she would probably never again play at a high level in a sport involving lateral movement.
Yet here she is in the State A semifinals with a perfect record. She finished third in singles last May and is determined to go farther Friday.
"When I decided to play college tennis I realized I need to take this way more seriously," said Todd, who will compete at Whitworth in Spokane starting in the fall. "I train down here at the Peak actually and then in Kalispell (indoor courts) in the winter.
"Taking third last year was very motivating. I played (2022 state champion) Eliana Foss of Hamilton in the semifinals and she was the only girl that beat me. Winning state this year has been my ultimate goal."
Todd admitted she had to overcome a case of nerves at divisionals last weekend. The nerves will certainly be part of the equation for all the semifinalists today, but Clara feels like she has turned a corner.
"State there's so much pressure, so if you've been in (the semifinals) once it makes it easier the second time," she said. "But Alina Kot is a strong player. It's going to be a good match."
In Friday's other girls singles semifinal, Cloey Ramage of Columbia Falls will face Bryn Coffin of Miles City. In the boys semifinals, Hamilton's Andy Purcell will play Libby's Ryan Beagle and Polson's Torrin Ellis will battle Hardin's Jameson Noteboom. All four boys won their two Thursday matches in straight sets.
In girls doubles, the Corvallis tandem of Jayde Venema and Brecklyn Jessop reached the semifinals. They will play Oceilly Black Eagle and Johanna Limberhand of Hardin. In the other semifinal, favorite Rachel Fluckinger and Eden Kindberg of Dillon will play Trinity Lefthand and Avery Schubert of Hardin.
In the boys doubles semifinals Friday, Owen McElwee and Trent Wilson of Polson will face Sean Mehling and Derek Blankenship of Hardin. In the other semifinal, Mason Kelch and Dane Hunt of Whitefish will battle Matthew Newbury and Gabbo Giammattei of Billings Central.
Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 16 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.