MISSOULA — A major haul in medals appears likely for western Montana's tennis best competing in the Class AA and B-C state meets starting Thursday.
Start with the Class B-C meet in Bozeman, where the Loyola Sacred Heart girls are strong contenders to sweep gold in singles, doubles and the team race. The Breakers took first and second in both singles and doubles in divisionals Saturday in Missoula.
"Our kids, they're really peaking right now at the perfect time," said Loyola coach Patti Danforth, who guided her girls and boys to second-place team finishes last May in Great Falls. "It's been an incredibly special year and we've got so much talent. I'm proud of them."
The Breakers have an undefeated doubles team in seniors Melanie Benson and Lauren Bodlovic. Two weeks ago they beat the defending state champion team from Fort Benton, Megan Clark and Katie Giles, twice in the Best of the West tourney at Playfair Park.
Loyola's girls team also boasts a dynamic freshman singles player in Evelyn Dechans. She lost only one match all season, that coming in a three-set marathon against Missoula Hellgate senior Hannah Worden. Dechans held a 4-0 lead in the third set of that match before falling.
The Breakers also have a trio of divisional runners-up capable of piling up big state points. Grace Daniel gave Dechans a run for her money in a battle of teammates in Saturday's divisional singles final. Likewise, Loyola's Emma Daniel and McKenna Round are a darkhorse to reach the state finals in doubles.
"We took first and second across the board in divisionals," Danforth noted," so we have high hopes for Bozeman."
The Loyola boys have bona fide contenders for state gold in their unbeaten doubles team of David Ramsey and Jacob Hollenback. The Rams' Jacob Bellamah and Teddy Heuchling should make noise in singles, although they'll have their hands full with Great Falls Central's Roger Mai and Bigfork's Trey Christiaens, who finished 1-2 in the Best of the West tourney.
In the Class AA state meet in Great Falls, Missoula Big Sky's Liam Johnson is the favorite to claim boys singles gold after losing in the state finals last season. The junior has had some close matches and dropped a few sets this season, but he has yet to drop a match — a tribute to his mental toughness.
Johnson's toughest competition may come from freshman Conner Joly of Bozeman, who took the Eastern AA divisional title with a win over Billings Skyview's Aiden Binau, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1. Kalispell Glacier's Rory Smith and Missoula Sentinel's Ethan Violette are also expected to challenge for the title.
In boys' doubles, Missoula has three teams capable of reaching the finals in Sentinel's Cody Curtis and Connor D'Angelo and Missoula Hellgate's teams of Wyatt Brown/Henry Ledyard and Austin Moseley/Henry Stahl.
Curtis gained valuable experience playing in last year's state doubles final, taking second with Violette. The senior will try to use what he learned to his advantage this week.
"We definitely need to bring our A game," said Curtis, who looks for plenty of tough competition from the eastern side of the state, including divisional champions Jayden Ostler and Timmy Johnson of Billings West.
"Then if we do happen to make the state finals, honestly we can't take it too seriously. That was me and (Violette's) problem last year. We went in dead serious and I play better when I'm loose and having fun out there. You obviously take it serious, but we can't be dead serious."
Missoula's best bet to reach the finals in girls' singles is Worden. She has two state doubles titles to her credit and her big-match experience may help her get over the hump against the only player she lost to all season, Bozeman's Maicy McCarty.
In girls' doubles, Billings Senior's Gigi Montague and Annie Woods are the team to beat. They'll take a perfect record to windy Great Falls after pummeling Bozeman's Laurel Ward and Sasha Hathaway in the divisional finals, 6-1, 6-0.
Missoula's best bet to make noise in the girls' state doubles draw is the divisional champion team of Elizabeth Bowles and Mia Heffernan. Bowles is making her first trip to state and Heffernan has some experience, having played with a different partner in last year's showcase meet in Kalispell.
"I'm super excited for state," Heffernan said. "It was definitely a learning experience last year because we had really terrible weather and ended up playing in some weird indoor conditions.
"I'm hoping we have better weather this year."
Unfortunately, the weatherman is calling for rain in both Bozeman and Great Falls. Limited indoor courts are available at both state sites.