If program prestige meant everything, then the O’Gorman girls tennis team — champions the past eight years and running — needn’t even show up Thursday when the state tennis tournament kicks off in Sioux Falls.
This is a new year, though, and the Knights sport several fresh faces, so showing up — and in a big way — will be required to earn a ninth-straight championship.
For veteran coach Don Barnes, the matches can’t come soon enough.
“The past week there’ve been lots of people talking about it. It’s kind of a paralysis by analysis,” Barnes said. “Now it’s time to go play and tee it up and see what happens.”
Past tournaments have seen the Knights push to run the table, but this year’s top-heavy group will be hard pressed by annual rivals Rapid City Stevens and Lincoln, while St. Thomas More’s impressive season has the Cavaliers looking like favorites on paper.
St. Thomas More returns state doubles champions Madison Fenske and Grace Goble, who hold the No. 2 seed after posting a 19-3 record. The two are also well-situated in singles, as two seeds behind O’Gorman’s Danielle Sebata and Samantha Czarnecki in the first and second flights, respectively. Sebata and Czarnecki defeated Fenske and Goble in doubles and singles in their schools’ two meetings this season.
From top to bottom, the Cavaliers are without a real weakness. STM has top-ranked players in the third, fourth and fifth flights — Meghan Fenske (No. 3), Grace Wittenberg (No. 4) and Anna Eaton (No. 5) — who are a combined 55-1. In six singles, Audrey Cope is the three seed.
“When we compare ourselves to Tommy More, we certainly can go head to head with them at the top,” Barnes said, “but they’re quite deep.”
Barnes’s confidence in his top-seed aces, Sebata and Czarnecki, is well-placed. Sebata, an English import, has posted a 28-0 singles record in the state’s top flight — as a freshman, no less. Czarnecki’s only loss in singles came against Goble — they split 1-1 in two meetings — and in doubles the Knights teammates are a perfect 27-0.
O’Gorman also has high seeds in Melissa Sierra (No. 3 in Flight 3), Olivia McDowell (No. 3 in Flight 5) and Maddie Nguyen (No. 2 in Flight 6).
Rapid City Stevens, the last program not named O’Gorman to win a state crown (all the way back in 2006), sports top-five seeds in every flight and is particularly talented in the bottom three singles and bottom two doubles brackets. The Raiders could make a splash in doubles, where the teams of Halie VanDerWerff/Allyson Riddle (No. 2 doubles) and Jaden Elliott/Ingrid Anderson (No. 3 doubles) are ranked second and first, respectively.
No matter what, the road to the podium will be long for all teams involved. Wins in the top and second flights carry more weight, but any number of permutations are possible with a deep field.
Lincoln, which finished in fourth place a year ago, faces an uphill battle but will get a big lift with the presence of Jess Ackert. The senior is battling a broken bone in her foot and has missed much of the season, but will lace up and compete at top-flight singles and doubles.
“She’s a senior. There was no way she was not going to play,” said coach Tom Krueger.
Ackert’s doubles partner, Meredith Benson, has grown accustomed to covering a lot of ground while paired up with less experienced teammates. Krueger said the experience has been important for Benson’s development, and presents a possible silver lining to Ackert having missed so much time.
Beyond Ackert and Benson, junior Emily Whitney and seventh-grader Ava Leonard have put together strong singles and doubles campaigns. As partners in second-flight doubles, Whitney and Leonard posted a 24-3 record, their only losses coming to the top-ranked squads from STM and Stevens.
Their path to the championship round won’t be easy, though, after drawing the four-seed — meaning another showdown with undefeated Wittenberg/Fenske would happen, if it comes to it, in the semifinal round. Madison’s Ella Graham, ranked sixth in top-flight singles, and sister CC Graham, finished with more seed points after posting a 6-0 record.
Now all that’s left is to play the matches.
“It always comes down to the players that have confidence and show up ready to play,” Krueger said. “We have to ignore the seeds, take it one match at a time and just play as hard as we can. … If we stay healthy, we can have a very good tournament.”